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What Will It Take to Phase Out Fossil Fuels?

Although legal and policy interventions could make fossil-fuel companies pay for the costs they inflict on society, the industry continues to wield undue influence over governments and bodies like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Clearly, new channels are needed.

WASHINGTON, DC – Amid record heatwaves, intensifying and costly extreme weather events, and increasingly dire warnings that climate change is literally killing us, calls to abandon fossil fuels grow louder. But the fossil-fuel industry is doubling down with investments in new oil and gas projects and major corporate mergers, walking back climate pledges, and making false promises that they can keep pumping without polluting. We need to ditch fossil fuels. But how?

The answer is unlikely to emerge from this year’s petrostate-hosted United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, which could deliver a political commitment to phase out fossil fuels but won’t chart the pathway to a fossil-free future. To address what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called “the poisoned root of the climate crisis,” we must look beyond the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to forge new forums fit for this purpose.

The good news is that Guterres, the pope, numerous national governments, and bodies like the International Energy Agency have joined the growing global call for a phaseout of coal, oil, and gas. At the UN Climate Ambition Summit in September, governments acknowledged that the climate crisis is a fossil-fuel crisis. The question is not whether to move beyond oil and gas, but how.

The bad news is that the fossil-fuel industry, buoyed by record-breaking profits in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seems impervious to such pressure. Worse, these colossal profits are being reinvested in more oil and gas development. As climate disasters intensify before our eyes, the industry responsible for nearly 90% of carbon dioxide emissions is betting that its dirty products will be a mainstay of the global economy for decades to come.

To force a change, we must expose the economic fragility that fossil-fuel dependence creates and its broader toll on human rights. Reliance on oil, gas, and coal makes communities more vulnerable to supply disruptions, affecting everything from heating and transportation to food prices. Such disruptions fall hardest on the most impoverished populations while boosting the industry’s profits.

It is worth recalling that fossil-fuel companies underperformed the market for the ten years preceding the war in Ukraine. That decade of decline reflected long-term energy-transition trends that the recent uptick in earnings has not changed. With fossil-fuel demand projected to peak globally by 2030, oil and gas remain a bad bet.

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Part of the problem is that governments have responded to price volatility by increasing fossil-fuel subsidies, rather than imposing windfall taxes. They also have continued to approve new oil and gas projects, including offshore in protected ocean areas. Planned production is double what’s compatible with the target of limiting global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels; there is simply no room for new oil and gas supply if the world is to avoid climate catastrophe.

Fossil fuels appear competitive with ever-cheaper renewables only because their production has been subsidized and their producers insulated from the costs associated with the damage they cause. The industry’s negative externalities, long borne by frontline communities, are now being imposed on people around the world in the form of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and droughts. If we compelled fossil-fuel companies to shoulder the losses they long saw coming, and redirected public funds to renewable solutions, oil and gas assets would be exposed as the liabilities they are.

This points to another big problem: corporate capture. Although climate litigation is key to holding the industry accountable, the challenge is not just to make polluters pay for the harms they cause. We also must diminish their outsize influence on climate policy. Despite the best efforts of movements like Kick Big Polluters Out, the fossil-fuel industry not only has a seat at this year’s climate talks; it is at the head of the table.

There sits Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, which is currently pursuing its own expansion plans. Al Jaber, COP28 president, is intent on portraying the fossil-fuel industry as the hero, not the villain, in the fight against climate change. Yet this is a well-known survival strategy for an industry in long-term decline. So, too, is the UAE’s advocacy of an “all of the above” approach that promotes renewables as a complement to fossil fuels, rather than a replacement for them, and that champions carbon capture and offsets, despite abundant evidence that neither leads to significant emissions reductions.

Contrary to what Al Jaber suggested earlier this year, the problem is not just with fossil-fuel emissions; it is with fossil fuels themselves. Focusing only on carbon ignores all the other negative effects of fossil fuels, including their impact on health, such as the eight million premature deaths from air pollution annually.

Though fossil fuels are overwhelmingly to blame for climate change, our UNFCCC-led climate regime has failed to address them, even before the industry was handed the gavel. For decades, the international body that should be leading the fossil-fuel phaseout has conspicuously avoided the issue. Neither the 1992 UN Climate Convention nor the 2015 Paris climate agreement mentions oil, gas, or coal.

This omission was not some casual oversight. It is a symptom of a deeper crisis in global climate governance. Because UNFCCC decisions require a consensus among 198 members, powerful countries can block progress and assure lowest-common-denominator outcomes, or none at all.

COP28 further underscores the need for alternative processes to manage the decline of fossil fuels, free from the influence of those who profit from them. Every day provides new reminders of why we need to phase out oil, gas, and coal. Fortunately, initiatives like the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, and the Global Parliamentarians’ Inquiry offer new ideas about how to do it. Governments must commit to a forum dedicated to fossil-fuel phaseout so the real work of ending the fossil-fuel era can begin.