After Dubai — Towards a “just, orderly, and equitable” fossil fuel phase out

This essay was originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus

Just before the recent climate summit in Dubai, COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber, with some exasperation, came out with the following rather amazing statement:

“Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

Al-Jabar was posturing when he made this quip about caves, but he can almost be forgiven. We badly need a roadmap for a “phase out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development.” By noting the lack of one, he underscored its absence. This is true even if he spoke as a flack of the fossil fuel cartel.

Speaking of COP28, it helped settle the question of the COPs, which still troubles the climate left. The COPs are easily dismissed as “blah blah blah.” But they are, in a word, necessary. We would be in far greater trouble without them, and this is true even though the COPs are condemned to make decisions by consensus, even though they engender endless greenwashing, even though, with next year’s COP29 slated for Azerbaijan, two in a row will be hosted by straight-up petrostates.

The climate negotiations are finally circling core issues. COP26 saw a decision to “phase down” coal, and COP28 opened with the Loss and Damage fund finally lurching into existence. Then came COP28’s key decision text, which called 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.” Only a month later—with President Biden’s move to “pause” the approval of new liquified natural gas terminals, a decision the White House explicitly linked to COP28— the COP decision demonstrated real world benefits. It could have many more in the future, including outside the United States.

Meanwhile, COP29 is set to see the next big battle begin in earnest, as climate finance takes center stage. This battle could (if all goes well) culminate in 2025, where COP30 will be hosted by Lula da Sila’s Brazil, and deliver a meaningful decision on that crucial front. This is not the time to performatively insist that COP stands for “conference of polluters.”

Having said all this, I must immediately add that the climate negotiations have thus far failed, as decisively witnessed by the steadily rising atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration. COP skeptics are quite right about this. But in their failure the international negotiations are hardly alone. Domestic climate action has had many victories, but it has hardly put us on a path to deep and rapid decarbonization. Nor has the green technology revolution brought planetary emissions into a peak-and-decline pathway. Nor—and this is not easy to say—have the world’s direct action and climate justice movements filled the gaps. Politically, they may be everything, but they too have failed to stop the warming.

One key point: the COP28 text does not simply call for transitioning away from fossil fuels but rather stipulates that this transition must be “just, orderly, and equitable,” a much more challenging prospect. This led Sivan Kartha, a climate equity specialist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, to add that the “deepest fissure” in Dubai was between those who simply want a rapid fossil phase out and those who insist that, to have any hope of success, such a phase out must be fair.

Many of us agree—but what does such fairness imply? 

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