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.
I don’t claim this report solves the challenge of equitable phaseout. Such a claim would be absurd. But this report does propose a solution to a keystone differentiation problem – assigning 1.5°C-compliant oil, gas and coal extraction phaseout deadlines to all the extracting countries, from the US and Saudi Arabia on the one side to Iraq and Angola on the other. Further, it shows that these deadlines must be joined to the challenge of providing financial and technological support to poorer countries that are far too dependent on the money and jobs they receive from fossil-fuel extraction to simply give it up.
The science is clear—the 1.5°C target is only achievable, if indeed it is still achievable, only if we stop burning fossil fuels. The political reality is also clear—we will only stop burning fossil fuels if we stop drilling and mining them in the first place. Finally, the practical reality is that we’re only going to stop this extraction – globally and in time – if we do so in a manner that is very widely accepted as fair.
All this we know, or should. What we don’t know is what it means in practice, on a time frame consistent with the 1.5°C goal, in a world that is starkly divided between wealthy and developing countries, and—in all countries—between the rich and the poor.
Fortunately, a lot of work has been done on the challenges of rapid fossil-fuel extraction phaseout, up to and including the associated equity challenges. Many of these challenges can be described in terms of capacity and dependency, which is to say capacity to change and dependency on the revenues and jobs associated with fossil fuel extraction. Some developing countries – South Africa is a fine example, as is India – are high-poverty countries that are heavily invested in coal. Others – including the United Arab Emirates, the COP28 host – struck oil some ago, and have become wealthy, high-capacity countries with the money and resources to buffer the turbulence that will come with oil’s inevitable phaseout.
There are, however, also poorer countries in far less enviable positions, and many of them hold fossil-fuel resources they would very much like to monetize. Very much in contrast there are the U.S., Canada, Norway, Australia and the United Kingdom—five of the world’s richest countries that, despite their pledges of action, are together responsible for more than half (51%) of the world’s planned oil and gas field developments from now until 2050.
2050 is a keystone year. If, in 2050, emissions are approaching zero, we’ll have a good chance of avoiding a future in which the impacts of climate change and their consequences become altogether unmanageable. But this means that virtually all countries, developing ones as well as rich ones, are going to have to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure more or less immediately.
How, given the state of the world, could this possibly happen?
This is a big question, and COP28 did little to answer it. But keep in mind that we only need two things – technology and cooperation – to save ourselves and our civilization. The hitch is that the second of these, cooperation, is unachievable without justice, which in the face of a problem of this scope and magnitude has to include a great deal of international finance and support.
At this late date, this should come as no great surprise, though it does. As Avinash Persaud, the special climate envoy of Barbados noted soon after the COP28 decision was gaveled through, “Some activists were disappointed we didn’t commit to an immediate fossil fuel phaseout. Still, without the trade, investment, and finance to achieve it, it would either have hit developing countries hardest or been meaningless.”
Obviously, there’s more to say. But I will allow the report to speak for itself. Take a look at An Equitable Phase Out of Fossil Fuel Extraction – it has a fine, short, executive summary – and know that it is still a preliminary report. We are actively soliciting feedback, which you can send us at firstname.lastname@example.org