Breaking the chains of fossil fuel dependency
A global campaign, coordinated by an Edinburgh alumna, secured a 35-country commitment at COP26 that will move US$24 billion of public finance away from fossil fuel investments and into clean energy initiatives.
Laurie van der Burg, studied LLM Global Environment & Climate Change at the University of Edinburgh, writing her dissertation on fossil fuel subsidies and World Trade Organization law.
After graduating in 2014, Laurie began her career at the Overseas Development Institute in London, working as a fossil fuel subsidies researcher. Realising that well evidenced economic and scientific arguments weren’t always sufficient to prompt policy change without people power and public pressure, she moved into lobbying and campaigning roles.
Laurie spent three years working on the successful climate litigation case brought against Shell by Friends of the Earth Netherlands before joining Oil Change International (OCI). After a wave of pledges on ending international public finance for coal, OCI helped secure a commitment at COP26 that for the first time also addresses oil and gas finance.
Please tell us a little background about the campaign, the team behind it, and your role?
At OCI I co-lead the global public finance work that we do as an organisation in partnership with many others. The campaign I've been working on for the last two years is focused on shifting international public money out of fossil fuels and into clean energy.
Making that shift happen is really important. Currently the G20 governments and other public finance institutions still provide two and a half times as much public finance for fossil fuel energy projects as for clean energy every year. That’s $63 billion US dollars a year that still goes to propping up fossil fuel projects across the globe and that is clearly incompatible with meeting climate goals.
The International Energy Agency says 2021 needs to mark the end of investment in new fossil fuel supply if we want to maintain a 50 per cent chance of keeping global warming limited to 1.5 degrees. We, together with other partners, have been pushing for a commitment from governments to end not just coal, but also oil and gas finance and shift their public money to clean energy projects.
We set up a working group consisting of 20 to 30 people with partners, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and thinktanks, and people from across the globe to work collectively towards this goal. We worked closely with a number of partners, including the International Institute for Sustainable Development and E3G [Third Generation Environmentalism] and the Big Shift Coalition, and closely coordinated with the people driving this work from within governments as well.
Clearly, there must have been a tremendous amount of work done before COP26?
I joined OCI to work on this agenda two years ago. Since the middle of last year, we really had an explicit ask to get a joint statement on ending public finance for fossil fuels and shifting that finance to clean energy but a lot of work was done before that to get the conditions right.
OCI and partners had been working for years to get institutions to shift their money out of coal and oil and gas. Those efforts really helped to create a kind of domino effect that led to all major economies agreeing to end coal finance by the end of this year and made it possible for us to move the debate towards oil and gas. Those efforts on coal finance can be traced back to 2013 and wider efforts on shifting finance in fossil fuel subsidies date far before that, even to the 1980s. At COP we were able to build on all of that.
Before I started working at OCI, there was a campaign to get the European Investment Bank (EIB) to commit to end financing for oil and gas. That campaign succeeded at the end of 2019, so we had a good precedent we could work with and leverage towards other institutions and countries.
Last year, with Global Witness, E3G and other partners, we managed to get the UK to adopt a new policy to end public finance for fossil fuels overseas and put an immediate halt to new finance for fossil fuel projects. Targeting the UK government was strategic, because of its role as the host of COP26 and also as the G7 president.
Once the EIB and the UK had moved on this issue, we were able to encourage them to really step into a leadership position and encourage other countries and institutions to join them.
We released op eds from influential people, helped orchestrate a letter from over 100 prominent economists that called on the G7 countries to take action, sent joint letters from civil society, took email action and did many other activities basically repeating the same ask over and over again to really generate momentum to tip the balance of public finance from fossil fuels to clean energy.
It has been critical to have a really good insider and outsider strategy. One person who has been a key driver in this work and who I was closely collaborating with actually went on secondment in the COP26 unit of the UK Government, so we were able to closely coordinate efforts which has been critical to securing the commitment at COP26.
We also tried to forge new alliances with groups that are not just focused on this issue from a climate perspective, but also from a development perspective or a human rights perspective. In that way we could ensure that different groups who are all active in civil society were aligned on this ask. With over 300 partners asking for the same thing, we were able to align the community around this issue, which helped us to get the people power we needed to really raise it at the international level and to get it on the agenda of the governments and institutions.
At COP26, you secured a strong commitment to reallocate public finance from fossil fuels to clean energy – how did that come together?
The initiative started with 23 signatories responsible for about $18 billion in public finance for fossil fuels a year but it gathered a lot of momentum over the course of COP and now there are 39 signatories. There are 35 countries and four institutions that have signed the commitment. They are collectively responsible for more than $24 billion a year in public finance for fossil fuels that could now be shifted to clean energy.
Honestly, we were quite surprised and overwhelmed with the support that this initiative was able to secure. In the lead up to COP, we were hoping to see 10 to 15 countries sign up and did not expect that we would be able to get some of the larger fossil fuel financiers, such as Canada and the US and even Germany, on board. Our theory of change had always been to gather the most progressive institutions so that they could really set a gold standard that we could then leverage, so our ambition was not necessarily to get a very long list of signatories at this stage. We were positively surprised by that but it also raises new challenges, to make sure this initiative gets implemented with integrity and signatories don't water down the level of ambition.
On the day of the launch, I was feeling very nervous but I was also hyped up and excited. We had been working until very late the night before to continuously update our communication materials because there were new signatories coming in on an hourly basis. Even a minute before the initiative was launched, we got the news that Italy joined the initiative!
It was quite surreal, to be honest, to see governments commit to the action that we have been calling for, for over two years. It was really good to see that there were strong statements on the need to not just end coal or oil finance but also gas finance. Representatives from low-income countries on the receiving end of this finance also confirmed they want clean energy finance, not fossil fuel finance, so they can embark on fossil free development pathways.
I think myself and some of the close partners were quite overwhelmed. We did take a moment to celebrate the initiative and the overachievement of what we have been pushing for but the statement creates new opportunities and new challenges in terms of its implementation so we couldn't help ourselves and started strategising the next steps.
What are those next steps?
It’s about making sure that signatories follow through. We already sent a letter to the UK Government, together with more than 50 other organisations, with recommendations for implementing the initiative, for the interpretation of some of the language in the initiative, and for a governance structure to make sure that progress is monitored and that there is a way to hold the signatories accountable to their commitments.
We are also pushing to make sure signatories get their own houses in order. This statement is about ending international fossil fuel finance but the signatories often still provide massive fossil fuel subsidies at home or hand out licenses for new oil and gas production. That is incoherent and hypocritical.
We will also be focused on leveraging this commitment towards the laggards. Those are particularly the Asian countries like Korea, Japan and China, but also Australia. Together they account for 46 per cent of global public finance for fossil fuels, so it is really critical that we get them to follow suit.
We also want to make sure that these commitments get cemented in policy processes at multilateral fora, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the G7 and G20.
Another area of work that we're now focused on is making sure this initiative responds to the clean energy access needs of countries in the global South. The statement is not very clear on what prioritising public money for clean energy finance means exactly. We really need to clarify how to increase support for clean energy and how to make sure that support helps countries go down a fossil free development pathway and get off their fossil fuel dependency.
How soon might we start to see change arising from this commitment?
In theory, it should have an impact fairly soon because the commitment focuses on a 2022 deadline for public finance for fossil fuels.
What we're seeing currently is that the massive fossil fuel projects that receive large sums of public money are really damaging for people on the ground. In Mozambique, for example, there are new gas developments that have led to land grabs, pushed people away from their lands and contributed to an escalation of violence in the region. Mozambique is being hit hard by climate change already with more than 1,000 people dying as a result of a cyclone in 2019, so we are seeing this fossil fuel money really blocking clean energy transition in countries that are on the receiving end of this finance.
That has real impacts on people on the ground – not just climate impacts, but also often human rights violations and people not having access to clean water or to their fishing waters or to their lands for food production. We really hope that these communities will see this money flow to clean energy developments instead, in a way that contributes to local needs and in a way that also engages these communities in an effective way in determining how this money gets spent so it actually contributes to local jobs and local development and doesn't hurt local communities. That is really critical for the quality of people's lives and for climate goals as well.
The commitment is the first international political agreement to address the oil and gas industries. Is that significant?
It’s very significant. If you look at the global public finance flows, most of the global public finance for the energy sector now flows to oil and gas projects with 51 per cent of finance flowing to gas projects alone.
We've already seen this shift out of coal finance taking place and it's really critical that we now address oil and gas finance next. The science is clear that we don't just have to wind down coal but also oil and gas if we want to stay below 1.5 degrees.
With coal, we have seen this domino effect, starting with smaller commitments on ending coal finance and then reaching the multilateral level, including at the OECD and later also at the G20. This commitment could be the start of a similar dynamic and domino effect on oil and gas and that's something we really need to see.
How do you reflect on COP26 more widely?
I'd say that it was a bad COP but with some good elements. It’s clear that this COP again didn't do enough to put us on track for 1.5 degrees and we haven't seen governments willing to respond to the climate crisis as the emergency that it is and like they've done in the context of Covid-19.
We haven't seen rich governments put the money on the table that they've promised to provide to poor countries to help them to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. There are real equity issues that we've again seen at this COP, this time worsened by the fact that a large share of the global population was not well represented.
At the same time, this was the very first COP where we've seen fossil fuels explicitly mentioned in the decision text, which is quite late if you consider that we have long known fossil fuels are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. It was the first COP where we've seen groups of countries commit to concrete and urgent action to wind down fossil fuel production.
So, we did manage to finally get fossil fuels on the agenda. Hopefully that will help to snowball more action and a more deliberate approach to winding down fossil fuels across the globe but we do still need to see a lot more action that responds to the scale of the crisis in an equitable way.
Do you feel optimistic for the future?
I have mixed feelings, let's say it that way. I am optimistic about the power of the movement and about the fact that the climate movement is growing, is becoming more inclusive and becoming stronger and more effective.
We are achieving some massive wins, which is important, and we need to do a lot more of that so I feel hopeful about the power of the movement and the potential to really accelerate action.
I think one thing that Greta Thunberg once said really rings true – that the only way to feel hopeful is by taking action and by doing something about this crisis. That's definitely what keeps me going.
Photography supplied by Laurie van der Burg.