We Need an Agreement to Phase out Fossil Fuels at COP28

December 4, 2023 | 3:52 pm
A press conference takes shape outside of Expo City, a COP28 venue in Dubai, UAE.Rachel Cleetus/UCS
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

We’re well into the first week of COP28, the annual UN climate talks, and have secured a promising early win on operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund. The United States has made important announcements on standards to limit methane emissions, along with a contribution to the Green Climate Fund. But things are definitely getting harder here in Dubai. It’s not just the poor air quality, long lines, and excessive fossil fuel company representation; nations are still too far apart in their positions on a fossil fuel phaseout, the top priority for this COP.

Why it’s time for a commitment to phase out fossil fuels

To meet our climate goals, nations collectively have to cut global heat-trapping emissions roughly in half within this decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Many recent scientific reports—including from the IPCC, UNEP and the IEA—show that we are fast running out of time to make the steep cuts in heat-trapping emissions that would keep the Paris Agreement temperature targets within reach. Yet global fossil fuel production and use continue to expand. And, while renewable energy is growing fast too, it’s not happening fast enough—and can never happen fast enough if its outpaced by fossil fuel expansion. We simply can’t expect emissions to fall quickly unless we drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.

Beyond the climate harms of fossil fuels, they also impose a terrible toll on human health, as numerous recent studies show—including the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, a BMJ study on global deaths from air pollution caused by fossil fuels, and a study on US deaths attributable to coal-fired electricity generation. Particulate matter (PM2.5) is a particularly nasty pollutant, contributing to a range of cardiovascular and lung diseases and even causing death. Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and toxics like mercury add further to the health and environmental burden of fossil fuels.

People and communities located closest to fossil fuel facilities bear a disproportionate burden of all these harms. Because of racism, colonialism, and economic inequities, Black and Brown people, Indigenous people, and people who live in poverty are more likely to live in fenceline communities exposed to this pollution.

These climate, health and justice imperatives are the reason the world needs to phase out fossil fuels and transition to clean energy rapidly.

Fossil-fueled misdirections

Despite the clarity science brings to the necessity of a fossil fuel phaseout, fossil fuel and narrow political interests are choosing to obfuscate and water down the text being negotiated for the final COP28 agreement. And some countries like Saudi Arabia have already come out in strong opposition to the inclusion of a fossil fuel phaseout in that agreement.

Some of the disagreement has been over whether to use the term ‘phase down’ or ‘phaseout.’ At this point in the climate crisis, we need to sharply reduce global production and consumption of fossil fuels within this decade, on the way to eliminating the vast majority and ideally all fossil fuels no later than 2050. Whatever term is used—and phaseout is clearly more accurate and preferable—it needs to be defined clearly and accompanied by explicit timelines and targets that align with the science.

Some countries are choosing to focus just on phasing out coal use, rather than all fossil fuels. Richer nations should phase out coal by the end of this decade, and the rest of the world should join suit by 2040. But that’s not enough—nations also need to phase out fossil gas and oil as rapidly as possible, or we won’t meet our climate goals.

Another way negotiators are attempting to water down the commitment is by invoking a phaseout of ‘unabated’ fossil fuels, implying the use of ‘abatement’ technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) or carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). The reality is that technological CCS/CCUS cannot contribute meaningfully to emission reductions in the 2030 timeframe—a fossil fuel phaseout must be focused on deep, direct cuts in this decade. Beyond that, even if these technologies might be needed to help address emissions in hard-to-decarbonize sectors like cement and steel, they will still only play a limited and bounded role in the overall emissions reductions required. And CCS/CCUS will not address the environmental and health harms from other pollutants associated with fossil fuels.

As the IEA has noted in a recent report: “If oil and natural gas consumption were to evolve as projected under today’s policy settings, limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 °C would require an entirely inconceivable 32 billion tonnes of carbon captured for utilisation or storage by 2050, including 23 billion tonnes via direct air capture. The amount of electricity needed to power these technologies would be greater than the entire world’s electricity demand today.”

The core, unavoidable task remains making deep, direct cuts in fossil fuel use. There are no escape hatches. The motives for all these squirrely terms and formulations are abundantly clear. Fossil fuel companies and petrostates want to protect their profits at the expense of people and the planet. Their unchecked power must be dismantled, and they cannot be allowed to hold back necessary progress to safeguard the future of the planet.

Finding common ground

Some of the concerns and challenges related to a fossil fuel phaseout are real and they need to be grappled with carefully and with equity clearly centered. While we know how to replace the vast majority of fossil fuel use with solutions at our fingertips today, there are definitely some parts of the economy, such as long-haul aviation, that will be much harder to decarbonize. But we need to act more quickly now and keep innovating, where needed, as we go. Securing an agreement at COP28 to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency by the end of this decade is a critical component of the clean energy transition, and these commitments are eminently feasible using existing technologies if we scale up funding for clean energy globally.

Yet some nations are stuck in a zero-sum mentality where they don’t want to commit to take action first if they perceive that would put them at an economic disadvantage relative to others. Low- and middle-income countries also need climate finance from richer nations to fund their clean energy transition—and that funding has fallen woefully short.  

An international agreement that drives collective action, oriented toward a fast, fair, and funded fossil fuel phaseout, is really the only way we can get this done. That’s what my colleagues and I—joining with civil society advocates from around the world—are pushing our governments to deliver here at COP28. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s easier than the alternative, which is a rapidly worsening climate crisis with a mounting human toll, spiraling economic costs, and a vastly diminished planet.