At the climate talks in Dubai (COP 28), deliberations continue on what language to use in describing the necessary transition away from fossil fuels. The high-ambition coalition and a group of the world's largest cities are arguing for a “phaseout” of fossil fuels. But the conference host, along with other major oil and gas producers, prefers a “phasedown” of “unabated” fossil fuels.
This isn't just semantics. Language matters a great deal in this context. Efforts to insert weasel words like “unabated” are directly linked to false narratives about technologies like carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. The fossil fuel industry wants governments to pump billions of dollars into CCUS, but even the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned against “excessive expectations” and reliance on the technology.
Ultimately, the aim of these weasel words is to slow down the transition so that companies can extract as much profit as possible before the inevitable end of the fossil fuel era. We have moved out of the age of climate denial; we are in the age of climate delay.
Confronting delayism is, in many ways, more challenging than denialism. This is, in part, because there is such a diversity of delay tactics. A case in point is a recent talk given at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University, where the speaker claimed that digging up and burning more Canadian oil and gas would make the world "cleaner" and more prosperous.
The speech drew on nearly every industry talking point available. There was "whataboutism" directed at China's supposed lack of action on climate change (which is contradicted by reality). There were claims Canadian oil and gas could alleviate energy poverty in Africa (distributed renewable energy systems are a far more attractive approach). Young climate activists (referred to as "glue people") were ridiculed for being frustrated about inaction on climate change and characterized as hypocrites because they use fossil fuel-derived products to dye their hair.
The central assertion that the talk was promoted on, that Canadian oil is “cleaner” than oil from other parts of the world and that burning more Canadian oil (and gas) would make us “greener,” was not actually explained. Perhaps because the speaker understood this is an indefensible position to take. A simple assessment of the energy return on investment (EROI), which is the ratio of the energy returned from an energy source compared to how much energy is required to extract/produce the resource, demonstrates the fallacy of making such a claim.
The EROI of the Canadian oilsands rates ~3:1, which compares very poorly to conventional crude oil that has an EROI of 18:1. This alone demonstrates that oil production from the oilsands is not clean (or cleaner) because so much energy is required just to get it out of the ground and into a usable form.
Of course, this EROI assessment accounts for neither the tailings ponds that scar the landscape (visible from space) with toxic effluent, nor the many other devastating environmental impacts of oilsands extraction and production. It also does not consider the health impacts on local people, particularly the Indigenous Peoples in the Athabasca region of Alberta.
Claims that Canadian LNG is “clean” are also contradicted by the increasing evidence of massive and unreported methane leaks from the industry and the fact that 30 per cent of Canada’s total natural gas consumption goes into oilsands production.
Efforts at #COP28 to insert weasel words like “unabated” are linked to false narratives about technologies like #CCUS, allowing us to have our cake and eat it too, write @KylaTienhaara, @David_S_McLagan and Myra J. Hird #StopFundingFossils
Given the ties that Queen's and other universities in Canada have to the fossil fuel industry, the fact that such talks are still actively promoted is perhaps unsurprising. The Smith School of Business focused on the importance of academic debate when introducing the speaker, while stressing they have also hosted other seminars on sustainable finance. To be clear, we want to emphasize our commitment to academic freedom — universities must remain important sites for unpopular opinions to be aired. However, when an opinion has no basis in fact, by promoting it, universities are contributing to the problem of disinformation rather than tackling it.
No doubt, the same kinds of disinformation and delay tactics are being deployed at COP28, which has been more mired in controversy around the role of the fossil fuel industry than any other.
The COP president is an oil executive, and there have been allegations the conference is being used as a platform to negotiate oil and gas deals. Perhaps this explains why Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe — two of the strongest opponents to a fossil fuel phaseout in Canada — are in Dubai alongside a slew of fossil fuel industry lobbyists.
A majority of Canadians have accepted the reality of human-induced climate change, a reality that is rather hard to ignore in light of the record-shattering 2023 wildfire season. But we have yet to fully grasp what this means for our economy.
The gap between our emissions reduction targets and our willingness to curb oil and gas production has been highlighted by the UN, among others. If we don't call out the use of weasel words — whether on the global stage or in our lecture halls — we won't be able to close this gap in time to avert disaster.
Kyla Tienhaara is a Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment and an associate professor in the School of Environmental Studies and the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen's University in Ontario.
David McLagan leads the Fire, Earth, Water, Air Contaminant Biogeochemistry Lab (FEWA Lab) and is a jointly appointed assistant professor between the School of Environmental Studies and the Department of Geology at Queen’s University.
Myra J. Hird, is a professor, an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and Queen's National Scholar in the School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University. Prof. Hird is director of Waste Flows, an interdisciplinary research project focused on waste as a global scientific-technical and socio-ethical issue.