I recently attended the COP28 global climate change meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) on behalf of the Northern Forum, a coalition of Arctic regional and state governments which was formed by former Alaska Governor Wally Hickel. They have designated me as an Arctic Goodwill Ambassador.
Energy is one of our critical Pan Arctic issues from the point of view of economic development, access to affordable and reliable energy, and the overall impacts of climate change. Some governments and ‘environmental’ groups have targeted the Arctic, such as the European Union proposing that “all Arctic oil and gas remain in the ground.”
This discrimination needed to be addressed. Our position was: The Arctic is leading the way in renewable energy with many Arctic nations having already achieved near 100% renewable energy including Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. Alaska has achieved 30% and growing. By contrast, the US is only 9% renewable and European Union 13%.
Stopping Arctic oil and gas development would only be symbolic, since the Arctic currently supplies 10% of world oil and gas. Not a single drop less oil would be burned, it would just be supplied by someone else. Current estimates of proven oil reserves are for 53 years.
While speaking out against discrimination, we also voiced support for alternative energies and increased efficiency in use of energy. We also spoke in support of the ability of all Arctic nations to cooperate with each other in best environmental practices in resource development and shipping practices.
The conference was held at the EXPO 2022 pavilion in Dubai, a luxurious exposition site built with unlimited access to funding by UAE. Eighty thousand people attended and seemed to be milling around endlessly, uncertain of what was actually being accomplished. The carbon footprint of the event must have been huge, but participants seemed to be unfazed, with the exception of the Malaysian pavilion where you could enter, tell them which airport you came from and they would give you your carbon footprint. For me, the conclusion was that I would have to plant 31 trees to make up for my trip. I am going to have to get really busy this next summer.
For the conference itself, some progress was made with the major oil companies announcing a commitment to reducing the emission of methane during oil and gas production, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Also, commitments were made to increase the development of renewable energy by three fold and to finance energy efficiencies.
The participants did agree to establish a ‘reparations’ fund for smaller countries with smaller historical carbon emissions in the amount of $100 billion, less than what is being proposed to keep the wars in Gaza and Ukraine going. Previous commitments to such a fund were not met.
The sponsor of the conference was called into question since UAE is a major oil and gas producer. While the host of the conference, Sultan Al Jaber, stated their commitment to financing renewable energy developments, he also gave a sobering statement regarding the need for oil and gas in a realistic transition to non-carbon fuels, pointing out that despite all the recent incentives, subsidies, and public shaming, the world burned more oil and gas this year than the previous year and is expected to do the same next year.
The world cannot live without energy, and it has been a central organizing factor for the existence of the human race ever since we learned to control fire. An abrupt end to oil and gas production would have a devastating impact on the world’s people, and according to Al Jaber would “send people back to living in the caves.” While that is probably an overstatement, he has a point and people would not put up with it.
His point was verified by data presented at the conference that the only dip in increasing fossil fuel use was during the Covid pandemic, where people just stayed home. I guess that is a modern version of a cave.
The only major initiative put forward that could actually do something to substantially reduce carbon was the proposal for a three fold increase in nuclear energy, the only remedy that could substantially supplant carbon based energy in the near term, but it is controversial. Memories of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and the crippled reactor currently in Ukraine are still present, along with the concerns over spent fuel disposal. In addition, 90% of the world’s nuclear power plants are designed, constructed and often operated by Russia and China. It is why Russia’s Rosatom has never been sanctioned over Ukraine issues.
Nuclear power has long timelines to develop, ten years or longer, and faces challenging cost overrun and financing issues. There is also concern about the proliferation of nuclear power morphing into nuclear weapons proliferation, a frightening prospect. Nuclear power currently provides about 10% of world’s electric production so tripling it would have an impact – especially when they are used to replace even more polluting coal fired plants – but still not eliminate the need for oil and gas.
Middle East oil producers also proposed to use carbon capture to reduce the impact of carbon emissions, but it was criticized as still being experimental. However, captured CO2 can be combined with green hydrogen to produce methanol, a reasonable net zero carbon fuel for transport.
Given all of this, the world will still need oil and gas for a long time to come, and given this scenario, there is no reason whatsoever to discriminate against the Arctic as a reliable and responsible oil and gas producer.
Paul Fuhs is a longtime resources and energy lobbyist and former mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.