Arguments about the future production and consumption of oil, coal and gas are dominating the closing stages of COP28, but what does the existing evidence indicate about the role of fossil fuels in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement? By Bob Ward.

As the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) draws to a close, one of the most contentious issues, which at the time of writing still needs to be resolved, is whether the decision on the Global Stocktake of progress towards the Paris Agreement should include a commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

The Global Stocktake is required by Article 14 of the Paris Agreement, with the first taking place in 2023 and then due every five years afterwards. The main purpose of the stocktake is to “inform Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions and support in accordance with the relevant provisions of this Agreement, as well as in enhancing international cooperation for climate action”.

The Paris Agreement requires countries to submit every five years details of their national plans to tackle climate change, formally known as ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) to the Agreement. The initial set of NDCs were submitted to the UNFCCC in the run-up to the COP21 UN climate change summit in Paris in 2015. Updated NDCs should have been submitted by 2020, but the response from countries was patchy. Article 4 of the Agreement indicates that each country’s successive NDC “will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”.

Revised NDCs are now required in 2025, ahead of COP30 in Brazil. Article 4 indicates that NDCs should be “informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake”.

The first Global Stocktake has been carried out over the past year, including extensive discussions between Parties to the Agreement as well as external parties, including civil society, businesses and experts. Three high-level events were held on adaptation, means of implementation and mitigation respectively, on 1 and 2 December 2023, by a High-Level Committee consisting of the COP27 and COP28 Presidencies of the CMA (the governing body that oversees implementation of the Paris Agreement), and the Chairs of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). A note of these meetings, intended to reflect the range of views rather than consensus, states: “Urgent actions are needed to reduce methane and non-CO2 gas emissions and to phase out of unabated fossil fuels in particular coal, as well as inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, with developed countries taking the lead.”

Phase out or phase down?

This focus on the ‘phase out’ or ‘phase down’ of fossil fuels reflects an ongoing issue that has become a growing focus in the international negotiations, particularly since the outcome of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in 2021 called on countries to “accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition”.

The Glasgow Climate Pact was the first outcome of a UN climate change summit that has explicitly included a pledge to reduce any of the fossil fuels. Since the Glasgow summit, calls have been growing for summits to agree to phase out or phase down all fossil fuels.

Early on in his period as COP28 President Designate, Dr Sultan Al Jaber highlighted the need to reduce fossil fuel use. For instance, in a speech in Brussels on 13 July 2023, he urged the world to accelerate the “inevitable” and “essential” phase down of fossil fuels.

COP28 will include a decision reflecting the results of the Global Stocktake. On 5 December the Chairs of the SBSTA and SBI published draft text on matters arising from the stocktake. It included in Paragraph 35 two options for text relating to fossil fuels. Option 1 stated: “Calls upon Parties to take further action in this critical decade towards…An orderly and just phase out of fossil fuels”. Option 2 stated: “Calls upon Parties to take further action in this critical decade towards… Accelerating efforts towards phasing out unabated fossil fuels and to rapidly reducing their use so as to achieve net-zero CO2 in energy systems by or around mid-century”.

A first draft of the COP28 decision on the Global Stocktake was published on Friday 8 December. It stated: “The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement…Underlines that, despite overall progress on mitigation, adaptation and means of implementation and support, Parties are not yet collectively on track towards achieving the purpose of the Paris Agreement and its long-term goals”.

It also included a number of options in relation to fossil fuels (Paragraph 36(c)):

  • “Option 1: A phase out of fossil fuels in line with best available science;
  • “Option 2: Phasing out of fossil fuels in line with best available science, the IPCC’s 1.5 pathways and the principles and provisions of the Paris Agreement;
  • “Option 3: A phase-out of unabated fossil fuels recognizing the need for a peak in their consumption in this decade and underlining the importance for the energy sector to be predominantly free of fossil fuels well ahead of 2050;
  • “Option 4: Phasing out unabated fossil fuels and to rapidly reducing their use so as to achieve net-zero CO2 in energy systems by or around mid-century;
  • “Option 4 [sic]: no text.”

A revised version of the text was published on Monday 11 December. It abandoned the language of phase out and phase down, and instead stated: “The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement…Also recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in GHG emissions and calls upon Parties to take actions that could include, inter alia…Reducing both consumption and production of fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner so as to achieve net zero by, before, or around 2050 in keeping with the science” (Paragraph 39).

Many Parties and observers immediately rejected the draft text as too weak, with some demanding that the text should be amended to reinstate a commitment to phasing out all fossil fuels. Many expressed their opposition to limiting the opposition to “unabated” fossil fuel use, which would allow oil, gas and coal to be consumed as long as the carbon dioxide emitted is captured and stored, effectively permanently.

What does the evidence say?

Wrangling over wording aside, what does the latest evidence suggest should happen to fossil fuel use in order to realise the goals of the Paris Agreement?

On 20 March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the Synthesis Report of its Sixth Assessment Report. It includes some explicit conclusions that indicate that to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century, fossil fuel use will need to be reduced drastically but not necessarily phased out.

The Summary for Policymakers stated on page 20:

“All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C (>50%) with no or limited overshoot, and those that limit warming to 2°C (>67%), involve rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade. Global net zero CO2 emissions are reached for these pathway categories, in the early 2050s and around the early 2070s, respectively. (high confidence).”

It stated on page 21:

“Global modelled mitigation pathways reaching net zero CO2 and GHG emissions include transitioning from fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage (CCS) to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, demand-side measures and improving efficiency, reducing non-CO2 GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, and CDR [carbon dioxide removal].”

In relation to carbon capture and storage the report included the following footnote:

“CCS is an option to reduce emissions from large-scale fossil-based energy and industry sources provided geological storage is available. When CO2 is captured directly from the atmosphere [direct air carbon capture and storage – DACCS], or from biomass [bioenergy carbon capture and storage – BECCS], CCS provides the storage component of these CDR methods. CO2 capture and subsurface injection is a mature technology for gas processing and enhanced oil recovery. In contrast to the oil and gas sector, CCS is less mature in the power sector, as well as in cement and chemicals production, where it is a critical mitigation option. The technical geological storage capacity is estimated to be on the order of 1000 GtCO2, which is more than the CO2 storage requirements through 2100 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, although the regional availability of geological storage could be a limiting factor. If the geological storage site is appropriately selected and managed, it is estimated that the CO2 can be permanently isolated from the atmosphere. Implementation of CCS currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and socio-cultural barriers. Currently, global rates of CCS deployment are far below those in modelled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C to 2°C. Enabling conditions such as policy instruments, greater public support and technological innovation could reduce these barriers. (high confidence).”

In relation to energy systems, the report stated on page 28:

“Net zero CO2 energy systems entail: a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, minimal use of unabated fossil fuels, and use of carbon capture and storage in the remaining fossil fuel systems; electricity systems that emit no net CO2; widespread electrification; alternative energy carriers in applications less amenable to electrification; energy conservation and efficiency; and greater integration across the energy system (high confidence).”

It is thus clear that the latest evidence indicates that a substantial cut in fossil fuel use is required, but not unequivocally a phase-out of fossil fuels, in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

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