The science is clear—the 1.5°C target is only achievable if we stop burning fossil fuels. The political reality is also clear—we’re only going to do so if we stop drilling and mining them out of the ground in the first place. Finally, the practical reality is clear—we’re only going to stop this extraction if we do so in a manner that is very widely accepted as fair.
All this we know, writes veteran climate analyst Tom Athanasiou. What we don’t know is what it means in practice, on a time frame that is consistent with the 1.5°C goal, in a world that is starkly divided between wealthy and developing countries, and—in all countries—between rich and poor.
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Fortunately, a lot of work has already been done on the challenges of rapid extraction phaseout, up to and including the equity challenges.
Many of these challenges can be described in terms of capacity and dependency, which is to say capacity to change and dependency on the revenues and jobs associated with fossil fuel extraction. Some developing countries—South Africa is a fine example, as is India— are high-poverty countries that are highly dependent on coal. Others – including COP28 host the UAE – struck oil a long time ago, and have become wealthy, high-capacity countries with money and resources to buffer the turbulence that will come with its phaseout.
All over the world, however, there are other, poorer countries in far less enviable positions, and many of them hold fossil fuel resources they would very much like the opportunity to monetize. And very much in contrast there are the U.S., Canada, Norway, Australia and the United Kingdom—five of the world’s richest countries that, despite their pledges, are together responsible for more than half (51%) of the world’s planned oil and gas field developments from now until 2050.
2050 is an important year; it has become synonymous with climate ambition, and for very good reason. If emissions are damn close to zero by then, we’ll have a good chance of avoiding a future in which the impacts of climate change and their consequences become altogether unmanageable. This is the 1.5°C future, which we’re desperately trying to keep open. But it means that virtually all countries, developing ones as well as rich ones, are going to have to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure more or less immediately.
How might this work? A big question, this one, but keep in mind that we only need two things—technology and cooperation. Which, as it happens, is unachievable without justice. Which, in the face of a problem of this magnitude, has to include a great deal of international finance and support. Which, at this late date, should be no great surprise. In fact, rousing calls for a fossil fuel phaseout that neglect any mention of finance and support are, at this point, just more meaningless rhetorical exhortations. They’re likely cynical ones at that.
Obviously, there is more to say. But this is not a proper report replete with careful argument and fancy graphs, not in particular a proper report that offers actual national phaseout dates for coal and oil and gas, each of them taken separately. But you can have that report, for it was released at COP28 by the Civil Society Equity Review under the title An Equitable Phaseout of Fossil Fuel Extraction.