Why is the phase-out of fossil fuels the biggest flashpoint at Cop28?

The question of whether the final agreement from Cop28 includes a call for a “phase-out” or “phase-down” of fossil fuels is seen by many as being the single most important indicator of success at the UN summit. The issue may appear to be a simple scientific one but is in fact complex and deeply political.

A call for a phase-out of fossil fuels gives the strongest possible signal to the world that the burning of coal, oil and gas must be reduced rapidly to have a hope of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5C. And that is why some fossil-fuel-heavy countries are so opposed to it.

What is the difference between a phase-out and phase-down of fossil fuels?

A big problem is that neither are defined and can therefore be used to mean different things by different people. That is why the issue is so slippery and contentious. Broadly speaking, a phase-out is taken to mean a radical reduction in fossil-fuel burning down to zero, or as close to zero as makes little difference, by 2050. Phase down is a weaker term, indicating that fossil-fuel burning must decline without specifying by how much or when.

What does the science say?

Sultan Al Jaber, Cop28 president
Sultan Al Jaber, Cop28 president: ‘I have said over and over the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential.’ Photograph: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

The science is crystal clear: fossil fuel burning is the overwhelming cause of the climate crisis; CO2 emissions must plummet by almost half by 2030 to have an even a chance of meeting the 1.5C target; emissions must then plunge to net zero by 2050. The science also finds that some CO2 emissions will be very hard to stop, such as from some heavy industry and aviation, meaning technology will be needed to either capture and bury those emissions, or suck CO2 from the air.

There are many potential paths to net zero by 2050, with the scale of carbon capture the key variable. Prof Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany, said: “I cannot see scientifically there being any other communication than that we need to phase out fossil fuels.”

What does “abated” mean and why does this matter?

“Abated” is when some of the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are captured and stored, for example by fitting equipment to a gas-fired power station. No official UN definition exists of what proportion of emissions need to be trapped to count as abated. The term is important, as one option on the negotiating table is to agree on a phase-out of only “unabated” fossil fuels.

Why is the issue political?

The world is hurtling towards climate breakdown: global emissions are still rising while the time left in which to kickstart a rapid decline is extremely short. The strongest way to illustrate the need for that fall is to agree to a phase-out of fossil fuels.

A phase-down could enable further delay and allow carbon capture to be used as a dangerous smokescreen, by suggesting that significant levels of future fossil fuel burning can be mopped up by technology. That is a “fantasy’, according to Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency. Carbon capture has failed to reach any meaningful scale to date and is likely to be far more expensive than clean energy technologies.

The science says most existing fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. But the fossil fuel industry is planning the opposite, expanding production by double the amount compatible with 1.5C. A political signal that fossil fuels will be phased out will help push countries and companies to end that expansion.

Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief when the Paris agreement was reached in 2015, unequivocally supports the “stronger political signal” of phase-out: “If we want a step forward in this Cop, then we cannot compromise on phase-out.”

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The executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol
The executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, has urged companies to lead the shift to greener energy. Photograph: Ole Berg-Rusten/EPA

Do words actually matter?

Yes. The fact that it took 26 annual UN climate meetings to name a fossil fuel for the first time in the final agreement of a Cop summit shows the 198 countries negotiating at the conference think words matter. At Cop26 in Glasgow, leaders agreed to “phase down” coal.

The Paris agreement is not legally binding but it has led to policies that will keep global temperature rise under 3C, targets that would restrict the rise to 2.5C and pledges that would mean under 2C. Before Paris, the world was heading for an apocalyptic 4C of global heating.

Who wants a phase-out and who does not?

A man tends to vegetables growing in a field as smoke plumes rise from cooling towers at a coal-fired power station in Tongling, Anhui province, China.
Smoke plumes rise from a coal-fired power station in Tongling, Anhui province, China. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Vulnerable and developing countries are demanding a phase-out of fossil fuels. Some rich countries, such as those in the EU and the US, have backed a phase-out of unabated fossil fuels. Major business coalitions also back this option. Those opposed to a phase-out include Russia, China and India. Saudi Arabia appears to oppose even a phase-down of fossil fuels.

What does the Cop28 president want?

As Sultan Al Jaber has said, his role as mediator is to bring the 198 countries to an agreement. But his credibility was undermined by revelations in the Guardian that, shortly before the summit, he said “there is no science out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what is going to achieve 1.5C” and a phase-out would mean taking “ the world back into caves”. The United Arab Emirates’ state oil company, run by Al Jaber, is planning a big phase-up of oil and gas production.

However, Al Jaber fiercely defended his views at an emergency press conference a day later, saying: “I have said over and over the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuel is inevitable. In fact, it is essential.” He said his comments had been misinterpreted and added: “If anything, judge us on what we will deliver at the end [of Cop28].”