Why a Blanket Demand for Fossil Fuel Phase Out is Bad Science

By Nafeez Ahmed - 11 December 2023
Why a Blanket Demand for Fossil Fuel Phase Out is Bad Science

I warned leaders at COP28 that the age of oil is over. If Sultan Al Jaber’s climate action plan gets through, it certainly will be.

The world has been in shock and awe over the revelation that Sultan Al Jaber denied the “science” of phasing out fossil fuels to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius safe limit.

And while Al Jaber has walked back his past comments made in conversation with former UN climate envoy Mary Robinson, insisting that he believes the “phase down and phase out of fossil fuels is inevitable”, confidence in the COP28 summit is on the rocks.

For CNN journalist John Sutter – and for many others – it’s black and white. Al Jaber is an oil man, and he’s cynically using the COP summit to greenwash his desire to prolong the global fossil fuel system for as long as possible.

But in my analysis for Britain’s premiere investigative news platform, Byline Times, I revealed that the BBC’s scoop about this based on leaked documents was deeply flawed. Not only had the BBC failed to prove that background notes containing commercial talking points for pre-COP ministerial meetings were ever actually used by Al Jaber, but they also failed to realise that the commercial deals mentioned would not increase global fossil fuel production, but could even decrease it.

Despite this, the story has gone viral. Speaking from the COP28 summit, former US Vice President Al Gore declared that the UAE’s presidency was “totally ridiculous”, and insisted that the entire summit will be a “failure” without a phase out agreement.

This is not just wrong – it’s a dangerous and polarising attitude that could derail our chance of reaching a global climate agreement that could fast-track the very fossil fuel phase out Al Gore is demanding.

A few days ago, the COP28 presidency gave me the chance to address world leaders at a plenary session on sustainable innovation. In my keynote speech, I told the audience that the age of oil was over – and would end far quicker than they believed possible. Societies need to adapt to this new reality. And that means scaling up clean energy technologies as fast as possible.

As a systems theorist, my job is to examine the systems of today to understand how they will shape tomorrow. I’ve predicted the war in Afghanistan before 9/11, the 2008 financial crash a month before Nouriel Roubini, and the break-up of Europe before Brexit. Now I’m predicting that if Al Jaber’s climate action plan to triple renewable energy, phase down fossil fuels and unlock climate finance is adopted, it will kick into gear systemic shifts that will accelerate the phase out of fossil fuels.

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.

But that’s why the simplistic, purist demand for a ‘phase out’ agreement could be counterproductive, especially as most climate activists are failing to connect it with the key social and economic transformations needed to ensure a just transition.

For the last few days, I’ve been working here on the ground to help a range of senior leaders from the Global South – the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Kenya, Malaysia and beyond – to engage with the COP process. What many Western environmentalists and others don’t understand is that developing nations view their demands for a ‘phase out’ as a colonial narrative of control. They worry that it will prevent them from standing on their own feet, building their own infrastructure, by developing their own resources which often include fossil fuels.

They fear that without a meaningful transition plan with clear timelines, expertise, and tremendous amounts of finance, such a transition would not only be impossible – leaving them potentially condemned to destitution. And they’re particularly concerned that they may end up being fundamentally subjugated to powerful Western markets and technology in a kind of ‘green colonialism’.

Which begs the question: how ‘scientific’ really is it to call for a phase out without remotely offering a specific plan for what that entails, and how it can be achieved, and funded – for every one of the 198 countries at COP?

The scientific and environment community can and must do better. Instead of uniting in condemnation, we far more urgently require clear and actionable roadmaps for transformation that focus on the systemic preconditions that will make a phase out possible: by addressing how to phase in a new clean energy system as rapidly as possible.



Dr Nafeez Ahmed is a renowned systems theorist, futurist and investigative journalist. He is the Creator of the Age of Transformation, Director of the System Shift Lab, a Distinguished Fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, and a former environment writer for The Guardian and VICE. He has been recognised by the Evening Standard in its top 1,000 list of the most influential Londoners. He is a COP28 delegate who delivered the keynote speech at the Innovating for Sustainable Innovation plenary at UN COP28 summit to world leaders, warning of the end of the age of oil.

Photo by Johannes Havn

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