It’s important to note that by the most unforgiving measure – the ever-rising atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration – the international climate negotiations have utterly failed. It’s equally important to note that the climate negotiations are not alone in this failure. Domestic legislation has had many victories, but these have been local, and partial, and contingent. Technological revolution, for all its promise, has not yet brought emissions into a peak and decline pathway. And I must also note that the protest and direct-action movements have similarly failed. Politically, they may be everything, but they have not stopped the warming.
Nothing has yet worked.
This is of course an unfair judgement. I could as well say that the negotiations, the legislation, the technology, and the social movements have all made immense contributions; that if they have not yet turned the tide, it is because something more is also needed. The strategic consensus, today, is that this missing ingredient would be a strategic focus on the phaseout of fossil fuels, and in particular the phaseout of fossil-fuel extraction, and I am hardly going to contest it. Amidst terrible complexity, simple truths have power — if we would phase out fossil fuels, we must “keep them in the ground”.
In this regard COP28 was a breakthrough, for it officially acknowledged this essential truth. It called, in the language of Dubai’s key decision text, for “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”
There’s more in this decision text, of course. But the battle for “a signal” that would announce the inevitability of the fossil-fuel phaseout was central to the Dubai negotiations, and with the phrase “transitioning away from fossil fuels” this battle was essentially won. For all the demoralizing compromises that mark the Dubai outcome, all the loopholes and the weasel words, and even the failure, yet again, to deliver a meaningful finance breakthrough — even to support the “adaptation” of beleaguered innocents — this was key, and we should absolutely allow ourselves to celebrate it. “Transitioning away” was only a diplomatic way of saying “phasing out”. The signal has been sent.
But note one essential point – the Dubai language does not merely call for fossil-fuel phaseout, it calls for a “just, orderly, and equitable” phaseout, which is a much more specific thing. The challenge is that no-one has yet done an adequate job of explaining what a fair and orderly phase out would actually entail, and this challenge is only heightened by the rapidity of the fossil-fuel phaseout that is now necessary, if we would preserve a real possibility of holding the 1.5°C line.
Which brings me to a new report – An Equitable Phase Out of Fossil Fuel Extraction: Towards a reference framework for a fast and fair rapid global phase out of coal, oil and gas – which was released, and widely welcomed, at COP28. This report is a product of the Civil Society Equity Review, or more precisely its “Extraction Equity Working Group,” and (full disclosure) I am one of the authors.