Fossil-fuel companies have more people at the UN's climate summit than the 10 countries most affected by climate change do combined
- Fossil-fuel interests are fighting for natural gas at the United Nations' COP27 climate summit.
- They say natural gas is a transition fuel, cleaner than coal, and can serve as a backup to renewables.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – World leaders hashing out critical climate issues at the United Nations' summit in Egypt have company: 636 fossil-fuel lobbyists are among the attendees.
The lobbyists' presence worries experts, because their business interests often stand in opposition to the summit's goal of reducing climate change-causing greenhouse gases, while still providing the world with power.
The fossil fuel industry has more representatives at the conference than any single nation, except the United Arab Emirates, according to a report from Global Witness, and more representatives than the sum of the 10 countries most affected by climate change.
Identifying how much power these lobbyists have in negotiations is tricky. One-third of the fossil fuel lobbyists Global Witness identified are registered as part of national delegations, according to Dominic Kavakeb, a spokesperson for Global Witness. That makes it tough to tell whose interests they support.
"What we do know is that through national delegations they enjoy privileged access and that they represent an industry that has a financial interest in the continued burning of fossil fuels," Kavakeb told Insider.
"For a summit on protecting the climate, this is a recipe for disaster," Kavakeb added.
Many of those lobbyists are pushing for the expansion of natural gas — a fuel source that increases the methane emissions global leaders pledged to cut at the last climate summit, in Glasgow, Scotland. Fossil fuel influence threatens to undermine progress on one of the most powerful, immediate climate solutions: ending human methane emissions.
Toby Rice, CEO of EQT, which is the largest natural-gas producer in the US, told Insider he's at this year's conference, COP27, to promote his own climate solution: producing natural gas in the US and exporting it to foreign nations that rely on coal. He argues that natural gas is more reliable, and can be a "backup" or "transition" fuel alongside renewables.
On Friday, The Guardian reported on other industry associations making similar claims. It seems to be working, especially as the energy crisis sparked by Russia's war in Ukraine has spiked Europe's appetite for oil and gas from Africa. Over the past two weeks, during COP27, three new natural-gas deals were announced in Egypt, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
Rice calls the expansion of natural gas "the biggest green initiative on the planet." But it could be a gamble, with high risks for the climate.
Natural gas carries the world's most potent greenhouse gas
Like coal and oil, natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits greenhouse gases when burned, trapping more heat on our planet and accelerating climate change. It's true that natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal. But natural gas is mostly methane.
Though it is not as long-lived as CO2, methane is better at warming the planet, with about 80 times more heat-trapping potential than CO2 over 20 years. Methane has caused about 30% of global temperature rise so far, according to the UN.
While methane's consequences are severe, the good news is that countries and industries can quickly slow climate change by cutting methane emissions. Pumping and transporting more natural gas could increase methane emissions. Damage and wear to pipelines and other fuel infrastructure frequently cause leaks. That's in addition to methane that's intentionally released, or "vented," as part of the natural-gas production process.
It's unknown just how much methane currently leaks from gas operations, because companies often don't report or measure them. The International Energy Association estimates that methane emissions from the energy industry are 70% higher than reported.
Industry-based climate solutions or fossil fuel influence?
In Europe, oil and gas companies have successfully lobbied against methane-emission regulation for imported fossil fuels, which includes 90% of the European Union's gas consumption, according to analysis by the think tank InfluenceMap. In the US, major industry associations historically fought against the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate methane emissions.
The analysis found that industry actors used two core arguments against methane regulations: that natural gas is a "low-carbon" energy source and that it's good for energy security.
But new rules might be on the horizon in the US. On November 11, the EPA outlined a proposal for stronger methane-emission regulations, including requiring oil and gas companies to monitor and plug methane leaks. President Joe Biden touted the plan at COP27.
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, said in a statement that it looked forward to reviewing the proposed rule, adding that it plans to support "a final rule that is cost-effective, promotes innovation, and creates the regulatory certainty needed for long-term planning."
Rice said that EQT plans to plug its leaks and cut its methane emissions by 90% within 24 months. Replacing leaky gas infrastructure would cut the company's CO2-equivalent footprint by a little more than half, according to Rice. Then the company plans to get to net zero by buying "land-based carbon offsets." Typically, that means giving money to companies that plant forests.
But many researchers argue that's not an effective alternative to eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions because forests only store carbon over hundreds or thousands of years — not on the hundreds-of-thousands-of-years timescale that the gas, oil, and coal were storing carbon before companies burned it.
Rice took a different tack. "We have to address people's concerns with the emissions that are associated with the production of our product, and instead focus the conversation on: What is the emissions reductions when people use our products?" he said.
While industry leaders say their products are part of a solution to the climate crisis, climate groups are more critical.
As Kavakeb put it, "Like tobacco lobbyists at a health convention or arms dealers at a peace summit, fossil fuel lobbyists have no place at COP — or any other event that wishes to be taken seriously in the fight against climate change."
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