Indigenous Peoples, frontline communities and climate justice campaigners are calling for untapped fossil fuels to remain in the ground forever and for a full, fair, fast and funded phase out of fossil fuels.
However, the language from past UN climate conferences is far less ambitious.
The Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26 called on countries to ‘accelerate efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. This watered-down and softened language provides countries with loopholes to make plans that are not in line with targets to limit global warming to 2°C. (Our addiction to fossil fuels has all but destroyed our hopes of limiting warming to 1.5°C. Latest evidence finds that in even the most optimistic scenario, we have a 14% chance of achieving this target.)
How can COP28 meaningfully signal that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end?
1. Committing to ‘phase out’ instead of ‘phase down’ fossil fuels
The High Ambition Coalition (an alliance of nations committed to ambitious climate action) and others are calling for a phase out of fossil fuel production and use. Conversely, some advocate for a ‘phase down’ of fossil fuels, with the arguments that phase out is unrealistic, and that it can only happen after we have sufficient renewable energy capacity. The COP28 president – who is the CEO of one of the world's biggest oil companies – recently stated that ‘you can’t unplug the world from the current energy system before you build the new energy system’.
Despite the arguments against it, the rationale behind a rapid phase out is clear.
The IEA’s pathway to net-zero by 2050, requires no new coal mines or mine extensions, and no new oil and gas fields approved for development. It says that there needs to be a decline in unabated coal demand by 98% and a decline in oil and gas demand by 75% and 55% respectively. The most recent Production Gap report also highlights that to be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, global coal, oil, and gas supply must decline rapidly and substantially between now and mid-century.
‘Phase down’ doesn’t send a strong enough call to action, as major fossil fuel producing governments still have near-term plans to increase coal production, and long-term plans to increase oil and gas production. These plans are not consistent with the pathways to limiting warming.
If we continue to say ‘phase down’, every country with oil and gas reserves will want to produce every last barrel and every country will want to continue to consume oil and gas. ‘Phase out’ provides a stronger signal to countries that they must end their dependency on fossil fuels in order to take sufficient action.
The fossil fuel phase-out should be accelerated in and led by wealthier countries who can afford to do so, especially those historically responsible for the most carbon emissions. In the meantime, they should support developing countries by delivering financial solutions and providing sufficient climate finance to help them facilitate a just transition to renewables, so that they can follow suit.
2. Getting rid of the word ‘unabated’
Even the term ‘phase out’ may lack credibility if countries and companies add qualifying language. For example, the COP28 President stated that there is a need to scale up the energy system free of all unabated fossil fuels, and earlier this year, the G7 countries committed to accelerate the phase-out of unabated fossil fuels.
‘Unabated’ fossil fuels refer to fossil fuels that are produced without using technology to capture the carbon emitted. Commitments to phasing out unabated fossil fuels therefore allow countries to continue to produce fossil fuels, as long as they capture or ‘abate’ the emissions.
The problem is that abatement relies heavily on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies that are expensive, slow to implement and unproven at scale. Pledging to phase out or phase down ‘unabated’ fossil fuels therefore offers an excuse to continue business as usual in the hopes of a silver bullet being developed down the line.
The science suggests that abatement technologies will have a minimal role to play in decarbonisation of the energy system even by mid-century. The prospect of CCS certainly should not be used to green light fossil-fuel expansion. Therefore the word ‘unabated’ should not be featured in the COP28 decision text, as it allows countries and companies to continue the ‘illusion’ that large amounts of CCS is the solution.
3. Going beyond the exclusive focus on coal
Limiting global warming requires a massive reduction in the consumption of all fossil fuels. However, only the phase down of coal has featured in COP decision text to date, although India pushed for commitments to phase out all fossil fuels at COP27.
The exclusive focus on coal shifts the onus of decarbonisation to large coal producing and consuming countries such as India and China, who are using coal to power their economic development. It overlooks large oil and gas producers and consumers, such as the United States, the EU, Russia, and the Gulf States, which have higher cumulative emissions per capita and higher incomes per capita.
Coal is indeed the most polluting fossil fuel and must be phased out. But focusing exclusively on coal lets the richest polluters off the hook and punishes countries developing later. At COP27, more than 80 countries supported India’s proposal, and with growing support, COP28 is the right time to push for this broader focus.
4. Addressing and defining the word ‘inefficient’
Signatories to the Glasgow Climate Pact committed to phase out ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies.
But there are no universally endorsed definitions for what makes a subsidy inefficient. Countries therefore have a loophole, which helps explain why global fossil fuel subsidies reached a whopping US $7 trillion in 2022.
Fossil fuel subsidies send the wrong price signals to users, which discourages the adoption of cleaner renewable energies. They usually do not benefit the poorest households because they flow to those who consume the most energy. And in addition to contributing to climate change, they contribute to local air pollution and congestion.
Therefore, it’s difficult to see how any subsidies could be considered as ‘efficient’, unless their aim is to address energy poverty or a just transition. The word ‘inefficient’ should therefore be removed – or at the very least defined – in any agreement emerging from Dubai.
COP28 could send a clear signal that the end of the fossil fuel era is inevitable. But that needs strong, clear, and ambitious language and credible commitments, especially from wealthier countries who have the responsibility and capabilities to lead the low-carbon energy transition. To keep 2°C alive, we can’t afford to let fossil fuels off the hook any longer.