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A Message to White Environmentalists: Demanding a Fossil Fuel Phase Out is Not Enough

The poverty blindness of too many climate activists overlooks the huge complexities facing the world’s poorest

Photo: Islandstock/Alamy

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The revelation that the COP28 president told former UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson that he believed there is “no science” to justify a total phase-out of fossil fuels to stay within 1.5C has stoked anger and shock around the world. 

But overwhelmingly this global backlash has come from white environmentalists who fail to realise that the blanket demand to eliminate fossil fuels is widely perceived across the developing world as an ill-conceived and self-serving colonial narrative promoted by Western interests.

The next day, Dr Sultan Al Jaber told a press conference that he believed he had been misinterpreted, and that both a “phase down and phase out of fossil fuels is inevitable”. This has not stemmed the backlash, but it has revealed a fatal failure at the heart of the Western environment movement.

Poverty Blindness

For too many in the developing world, basic infrastructure for transport, health and food barely exists. Many of these countries have only just begun developing their own natural resources, including fossil fuels, to rise out of poverty and become independent. 

For them, the clarion call from Western environmentalists for phasing out fossil fuels sends a very different message – it says that these countries must not be allowed to use their own natural resources to pursue sovereignty, fight poverty, feed their families, build new cities and opportunities, and strive for a good life. 

They fear that ‘green colonialism’ will force them to stop relying on their own oil and gas and end up dependent – once again – on Western investors, expertise and technology, who will end up reaping the benefits of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. 

Here at the COP28 summit in Dubai, I’ve been working with delegates from a range of developing nations – the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Mali, and Malaysia to name just a few. Overwhelmingly, they tell me that the fundamental problem with the fossil fuel phase-out call is that, for them, it’s meaningless. 

How can 200 countries sign up to phase out fossil fuels – including 98 oil producers (half of whom are in the developing world) – when there is no accompanying agreement on: 

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Climate Danger

There can be no doubt that the climate science makes clear that carbon dioxide from exponentially increasing fossil fuel production is driving us into the climate danger zone – perhaps long before the 1.5C ‘safe limit’ agreed at Paris. 

In 2021, I was the lead contributing editor of Rethinking Climate Change by RethinkX, a major study exploring how scaling up key technology disruptions in energy, transport and food could potentially reduce emissions by 90% by 2035. But one of our most alarming findings was that in every scenario we modelled, it was impossible to avoid breaching the 1.5℃ safe limit even with the speed and scale of these disruptions.

Several scientific studies have concluded that there is no pathway to staying within 1.5℃. One recent paper in Nature Climate Change found a two-thirds chance of exceeding the 1.5℃ climate safety threshold after 2030.

But a paper published in the Climate Risk Management journal went further, concluding that “dangerous climate target overshoot is almost inevitable”. The only way to now mitigate this is to stop carbon emissions as soon as possible, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and deploy technologies “for rapidly cooling global temperatures”.

What this means, however, is that to claim that there’s a scientific pathway to staying within 1.5℃  just by phasing out fossil fuels is highly questionable. 

Phase Down or Phase Out?

So here we need to not only stop new emissions as soon as possible but somehow begin rapidly drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. That much the scientific community agrees on. The question, of course, is how. 

While the climate scientists who call for a fossil fuel phase-out might well be able to justify the idea in terms of a general goal – what they have failed entirely to do is to produce a viable and concrete plan to actually make this happen. I don’t mean yet another technical report showing we can build a 100% renewable energy system. We need a comprehensive, region-by-region, country-by-country, roadmap.

To that extent, it’s simply not enough to demand a fossil fuel phase out. We need a scientifically and technically rigorous practical plan. 

200 countries will not sign up to a phase-out agreement if they can’t see how it will work – and many of them see it as an even more immediate existential threat than climate change. Repeating slogans won’t make it happen. Doing the work to ensure every country can envision concrete post-carbon alternatives is what we need to focus on – and is what the environment movement so far has still failed to do.


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The Risk of Colonial Control

Several COP28 delegates from Nigeria and Chad, two oil-producing countries in Africa, told me that Sultan Al Jaber’s caution around a fossil fuel phase-out is welcome. One, Dayo Israel is a veteran COP delegate for 20 years who is head of the youth wing of Nigeria’s largest political party, and one of the COP28 delegates I’m working with here in Dubai. He told me that he found the recent media coverage astonishing:

“Climate change is ravaging countries in Africa. But before we are even thinking about climate change, we are thinking about how we can feed ourselves, how we can get a job. Nigeria is using our own resources to try to develop new infrastructure so that we can live better lives. But come to Lagos, and you’ll see that it’s the only place with a basic metro. The rest of the country has barely a transport infrastructure. We have only recently begun to try to build up our country by standing on our own feet, using our own resources. Now we are being told we must become dependent on the West again! Why should Nigerians and Africans be denied our aspirations to meet our basic needs, let alone to attain prosperity on a scale that Westerners take for granted? You can talk about phase out all you like. But if you don’t give us the tools and funds to do it, it’s really just another Western colonial control narrative.”

For countries in the developing world which are dependent on oil imports, it’s a different fear.

Bangladesh, for instance, where I delivered systems thinking training to civil society activists last summer, is 99% dependent on fossil fuel imports. Speaking to Bangladeshi climate activists was eye-opening.

For them, while they urgently want fossil fuel use to disappear to avert the increasingly devastating impacts that are afflicting Bangladesh more than most places in the world, they worried about the justice of such a transition. Several activists I spoke to told me that a global climate deal which focuses on a total fossil fuel phase-out, without committing to the energy system that will replace it, will not be welcomed by Bangladeshis, but instead seen as a disaster waiting to happen.

The country, one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change, has made scant progress on renewable energy – if the country is unable to import oil and gas in this scenario, it would plunge into catastrophe. ‘Back into caves’ would be an understatement. As such, signing up to such an agreement would feel like a suicide pact.

Some climate activists have overlooked the complex interlinkages between this issue. Whatever one thinks of Sultan Al Jaber, one statement he’s made repeatedly makes perfect sense: “We cannot unplug the world from the current energy system before we build a new energy system.”

The focus, then, has to shift. Instead of focusing on dismantling the incumbent system, we need to focus on accelerating the deployment of the new system that will replace it (both in terms of technological transformations across key sectors, as well as related socio-economic transformations): because that’s the only way that demand for oil and gas can be eliminated.

Ultimately, the conversation needs to change to how we phase out fossil fuel demand. Because it’s demand that keeps producers in business. That, of course, shifts the locus of responsibility for action, and brings up the stark necessity of accelerating two things: the deployment of the specific technologies that have the biggest bang for the buck in terms of slashing emissions, and the social changes we need to optimise and adapt our societies to distribute the benefits of this transformation. 

And that’s why a viable global climate agreement has to not just talk about a phase out, phase down, or whatever term we might want to use to describe it; it has to ensure that it makes available the trillions of dollars worth of climate financing that will be necessary for this transformation to actually take place at pace in the developing world – and in a way that’s structured properly to uplift, not exploit, developing nations. 


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The Most Ambitious, and Most Precarious COP?

So far, the COP28 negotiations have exposed deep-seated global divisions that could easily derail some of the most ambitious climate action goals tabled by the Presidency. If the polarisation around the phase-out/phase-down issue becomes too toxic, it could leave the final draft agreement in tatters. 

Yet we have to not lose sight of the opportunity ahead. We have a chance to get a global agreement on some unprecedented milestones that have never been on the table before: tripling renewables worldwide by 2030, reducing fossil fuel use worldwide, and releasing trillions of climate finance. 

What many don’t realise is that we are dealing with nonlinear dynamics here – not simple straight line change. 

Tripling renewables would lead solar, wind and battery costs – already more competitive than fossil fuels in most regions of the world – to plummet by 50% by 2030. That, in turn, would increase their competitiveness which would dramatically accelerate their deployment far beyond the tripling target. 

That target fits well with the recognition of a phase-down of fossil fuels (as opposed to a phase-out) because it would, in itself, lead to a huge chunk of global fossil fuel demand being extinguished by 2030. As the fossil fuel system is already dependent on multi-trillion dollar direct and indirect subsidies to remain profitable, however, a large dent in demand will strike an economic blow to these incumbent industries, driving many companies to extinction, and incentivising investors to flee new fossil fuel investments. 

Both these dynamics, together, would dramatically amplify both the phase-out of fossil fuels, and the phase-up of the new system. As the fossil fuel system enters accelerated decline, the emerging clean energy system will experience accelerated deployment. 

So, if implemented, such an agreement would be critical to accelerating the global system transformation we need by shifting energy markets into a new gear under the realisation that the demise of the age of oil is, indeed, inevitable. If we fail to get this agreement, the world will have taken a step backwards leaving all of us vulnerable to higher risks of breaching tipping points that could catapult us into increasingly dangerous climate chaos.

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