During the recent climate summit in Dubai, COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber emphasized the need for a roadmap for a phase out of fossil fuels to allow for sustainable socioeconomic development. The climate negotiations are finally addressing core issues, with COP26 deciding to phase down coal and COP28 opening with the Loss and Damage fund. COP28’s key decision text advocates for a just, orderly, and equitable transition from fossil fuels in energy systems, aiming for net zero by 2050.
The meeting demonstrated real-world benefits, including President Biden’s decision to pause the approval of new liquified natural gas terminals, which was explicitly linked to COP28. COP29 is set to see climate finance take center stage, and the next big battle begins in 2025, where COP30 will be hosted by Brazil. The time is not for performanceally insisting that COP stands for “conference of polluters.”
However, the climate negotiations have thus far failed, as evidenced by the steadily rising atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration. Domestic climate action has had many victories, but it has not put us on a path to deep and rapid decarbonization. The green technology revolution has brought planetary emissions into a peak-and-decline pathway, and direct action and climate justice movements have not filled the gaps.
One key point is that the COP28 text does not simply call for transitioning away from fossil fuels but stipulates that this transition must be “just, orderly, and equitable,” a much more challenging prospect. Sivan Kartha, a climate equity specialist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, added that the “deepest fissure” in Dubai was between those who simply want a rapid fossil phase out and those who insist that such a phase out must be fair.
The term “climate emergency” has become popular, but it is also accurate. Achieving net-zero emission by 2050 requires facing political and economic challenges, such as the 1.5°C temperature goal. While some argue that 1.5°C is no longer achievable, it remains achievable through “overshoot and decline” pathways. The real question is whether we will achieve this mobilization or avoid catastrophe. To keep 1.5°C alive as a long-term goal, we must keep the temperature peak “well below 2°C” (the weak end of the Paris target), which is widely judged to be achievable. However, even this weaker goal requires rapid, far-reaching changes in all aspects of society, which is not possible in today’s world.
Net-zero 2050 means going beyond the deployment of new, ultra-low emissions infrastructure to eliminate existing fossil fuel infrastructure. This means that virtually all countries should immediately stop investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, as it will have to be decommissioned before it’s worn out. All countries must also rapidly decommission the fossil fuel infrastructure they already have in place, even if it’s profitable and relies on people for their livelihoods.
This process will be both expensive and disruptive, in both political and economic terms, and particularly hard on poor and insecure populations. In a world geared for rapid transition, these challenges would be tractable, but it would be a world in which we were speaking honestly about the depth and profundity of the necessary transformation. This is not our current world, which tends towards greenwashing, soft-pedaling, and small-bore gradualism, if not actual denialism and climate “brightsiding.” The green technology revolution offers promising possibilities for saving ourselves and building new futures, but we still face strategic challenges, particularly in the realm of justice. Brave choices are necessary, and political movements that avoid these challenges will not succeed in the lifetimes of our children.
A global extraction phase out is difficult, especially in fossil fuel extraction and production. Rich countries like the United States and Norway heavily invest in oil and gas extraction, while high-poverty developing countries like South Africa and India heavily invest in coal. Gulf oil exporters like the United Arab Emirates, the host of the COP28, are wealthy, high-capacity countries with the resources to buffer the turbulence that will come with any rapid abandonment of oil. The focus should be on halting the global fossil energy pipeline, not on which countries deserve more time to stop, but on providing necessary financial, political, and technological support.
All extracting countries will plead their cases, with the most legitimate pleas coming from poor developing countries that are highly dependent on fossil-related revenues and livelihoods. However, some countries are much richer than others, and this confusion is dissipating. Transitioning away from fossil fuels in a “just, orderly, and equitable” manner is difficult and expensive, raising the “who pays?” question. Optimism is as much a danger as pessimism in such a situation, as it is not clear whether we will be able to quickly draw temperatures back down after they overshoot 1.5°C. Politicians everywhere will want all the wiggle room they can get, and the fossil cartel will move at every opportunity to exploit the situation.
The climate negotiations are marked by ongoing skirmishing between global North and South, which will not abate anytime soon. The planet is still strongly structured by the “uneven and combined development” of the colonial past, and the countries of the global North still host the majority of the world’s wealth. Despite this, COP28 saw the fossil phaseout challenge take center stage, as activists and diplomats saw this challenge as a litmus test to show if the climate negotiations were fit for purpose.
The climate reckoning is linked to the ongoing geopolitical crisis, with Israeli bombings and civil society demonstrations being marginalized by the COP’s security regime. COPs are not mere climate meetings; the talk is not confined to carbon budgets and energy-system transformation. International debt relief, the need for a radically new planetary finance architecture, and the military budget are all front and center. Climate is a significant issue, with 183 ongoing conflicts worldwide, the highest in over three decades. The fraying of the world order threatens climate cooperation. A political-economic shift is needed for climate stabilization, but it won’t be cheap or easy.
The Gaza bombing and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine have brought attention to the global North’s role in climate change lawsuits and other infamies. The two million people of Gaza are currently in the spotlight, but the Rohingya of Myanmar have been murdered and expelled by a wave of anti-Muslim violence. Russia’s war in Ukraine has also been a milestone in the global right’s campaign against collective action, including climate action.
During COP28, the leak of a letter from OPEC secretary general Haitham al-Ghais warned that pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences. This led to arm twisting and even a Saudi walkout. The OPEC cartel wants to prevent the transition away or phase down/out frames from taking hold, arguing that “emissions” are the real problem. This is a greenwashing strategy, and its partisans will use all available arguments in its service, including repeated references to energy justice.
OPEC has no intention of scaling back fossil fuel extraction, which could change (one must hope) but requires the great powers of the global North to take the lead and begin their own fossil fuel extraction phase out. The Biden administration’s decision to scrutinize and hopefully reject a wave of new LNG export terminals could mark a true turning point. Talk is cheap, and just because a country’s delegation supported phase down/out at COP28 doesn’t mean its decision makers are ready and able to follow through. At the COP, many of them clearly weren’t prepared to follow through.
Some countries, including the United States, are planning even greater production increases than the United States, with some being developing countries and others not. Most fossil-rich countries, whether in the global North or the global South, continue to exploit their coal, oil, and gas resources for as long as possible. China is at the bottom of the chart, but the picture is grim. The climate reckoning is arriving, and countries of the global South can continue to make compelling appeals to basic levels of developmental justice, even when they bleed into PR cover for continued fossil investment.
To succeed, the fossil fuel phaseout roadmap must be reasonably detailed and properly funded, while also sharply increasing the development and build-out of low-carbon energy systems. This roadmap must include nationally differentiated coal, oil, and gas extraction phaseout timeframes and financing strategies that can support them. Given the emergency, these phaseout timeframes will be extremely challenging, as befitting the goal of net-zero emissions by or around 2050. Climate realism tells us that the pace of the necessary decarbonization, not the politics of the day, is immutable, and that the problem of climate stabilization must be seen as a solution to a collective action problem.
Collective action problems have a special relationship to justice, and justice and equity are key to any successful climate transition. Al-Jaber’s roadmap for a “phase out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development” is a bear of a problem, but many people are working on it. Examples include the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative, Phaseout Pathways for Fossil Fuel Production within Paris-Compliant Carbon Budgets, Economic Diversification from Oil Dependency, and the Civil Society Equity Review.
Economic diversification and the differentiation between developing countries and the global North are crucial for achieving a fast and fair global phase out of coal, oil, and gas. The challenge lies in differentiating between different countries and circumstances, such as Gulf oil exporters like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have the money to diversify their economies as they phase out fossil fuel extraction. Harder cases arise when considering hybrids that are both developed and developing, or when considering inequality within countries.
A report by the Extraction Equity Working Group of the Civil Society Equity Review at COP28 focuses on the finance challenge of supporting rapid climate transition by proposing a reference framework for the phase-out of coal, oil, and gas. The report argues that if we would limit warming to 1.5°C, all countries must immediately cease to build new fossil fuel extraction infrastructure. Wealthy fossil fuel producers must phase out extraction by 2031, while providing financial support to economically dependent countries until 2050, with poorer countries given until 2050.
The “unrealistic” nature of the Earth’s 1.5°C emissions deadlines is not due to equity-side logic but rather the constraints imposed by the Earth’s nearly-depleted budget. To push these deadlines out, we must either weaken our temperature goal or assume that gigatons of carbon dioxide can be extracted from the climate system and “sequestered” away. After the Dubai decision, much of the left’s commentary focused on criticizing the late-game negotiations, which replaced “phase out” with “transitioning away.” However, activists in the negotiations generally agreed that Dubai had sent the necessary signal that the world’s governments have decided the fossil economy has to go. Bill McKibben argued that the “transitioning away” phrase will hang over every discussion, especially regarding any further expansion of fossil fuel energy.
Dubai’s limited decision on phaseout financing is a significant weakness, according to Harjeet Singh, Global Engagement Director for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. A long-overdue direction to move away from coal, oil, and gas has been set, but the resolution is marred by loopholes that offer the fossil fuel industry numerous escape routes, relying on unproven, unsafe technologies. Developing countries, still dependent on fossil fuels for energy, income, and jobs, are left without robust guarantees for adequate financial support in their urgent and equitable transition to renewables.
Harjeet refers to “hundreds of billions” as a financial measure for the transition from fossil fuel extraction to sustainable development. This figure is often used by civil society researchers and activists to assert financial markers large enough to be realistic. However, it is important to note that these figures refer to public monies and have been replaced with references to trillions, typically private monies framed as investments.
The elites are more likely to deliver on private finance pledges than public ones, but a future defined by investment, insurance, loans, and aid may not account for deep decarbonization, development challenges, people-centered adaptation, and an ethically defensible loss and damage response and recovery system. Without a comprehensive climate finance breakthrough, hope for a fair, orderly, and equitable transition will be abandoned in favor of a short-term neoliberal expediency that is unlikely to deliver the global just transition we need. The challenge here encompasses the historical responsibility of the global North, the debt crisis in the global South, inequality, democracy, and the techno-economic complexities of the great rebuilding on the horizon.