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COP28: ‘Abated’ Fossil Fuels Would Still Prove Devastating To Human Health

As the COP28 climate negotiations roll into their final days, the Global Climate and Health Alliance today warned negotiators that some of the pathways available in the current COP28 texts will prove detrimental to human health. While the future use of fossil fuel use - responsible for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of carbon dioxide - is being debated, the health implications are not under discussion.

From a health point of view, points of concern include:

  • Full phase out of fossil fuels vs phase out of “unabated” fossil fuels
  • Phase out of fossil fuels vs phase out of fossil fuel emissions
  • Phase out of all fossil fuels vs phase out of coal (but not oil and gas)

Some countries oppose mentioning fossil fuels in the final COP28 agreement entirely. Others are debating whether to commit to phasing out all use of fossil fuels, or phasing out ‘unabated’ fossil fuels, which would allow continued unfettered use of ‘abated’ fossil fuels. ‘Abated’ refers to relying on unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) to extract CO2 from emissions generated by fossil fuel use. Proposals also include a focus on “emissions” rather than fossil fuels; or to limit phase out language to coal, rather than all fossil fuels.

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“The difference for people’s health of phasing out only ‘unabated’ fossil fuels, versus a full fossil fuel phase out is night and day”, said Dr Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. “Important questions remain about whether carbon capture and storage can work at scale. But even setting that aside, CCS, and similarly, focusing on reducing emissions rather than the fossil fuel sources of emissions, does nothing about the many other pollutants produced when fossil fuels are burned, and that are devastating to human health.” 

“Currently 99% of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air, with five million people per year dying prematurely due to the air pollution produced by use of fossil fuels. While CCS, if it worked as promised by the fossil fuel industry, would remove CO2, it would not address the small particulates that drive respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease including strokes, and that damage children’s growing lungs. CCS also does not remove the impact on people’s health from fossil fuel extraction and transport, and is nothing more than a way to prolong the era of fossil use", said Miller.

“It will also not be enough to phase out coal while the expansion of the use of oil and gas continues. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas with over 80 times the warming power of CO2 over a 20 year period. Methane is also a precursor of ground level ozone, a harmful air pollutant; and methane leaks and emissions, along the entire supply chain from extraction to the use of gas in the home, are accompanied by highly toxic co-pollutants, including carcinogens such as benzene.”

“Like coal, oil and gas are responsible for significant health harms at every stage, from extraction, through processing and transport, to when they are burned.”

“COP28’s only sane pathway - one that will protect people's health - is an agreement that sets in motion the orderly and just phase out of all fossil fuels”, said Miller. “Reducing ‘unabated’ fossil fuel use in return for as yet unproven, undeveloped and barely existing carbon capture technologies is not a credible solution. Furthermore, relying on these ‘abated’ fossil fuels would still mean extraction, transport and burning of fossil fuels, with all of the associated impacts on human health and well-being. It's time to make a bold leap forward. We already possess pathways for ending the fossil fuel era, which will ultimately benefit our health, and the climate”.

“Coming into COP, the global health community made clear that fossil fuels are incompatible with protecting people’s health and with health equity, when leaders from organizations representing over 46 million health professionals and health workers delivered an open letter to COP 28 President-Designate Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber calling for an “accelerated, just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels as the decisive path to health for all”, concluded Miller.

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