Opinion: We must stop new fossil fuel development to ensure just energy systems

Why we need a fossil fuel phase out, not a transition away.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) The Utah State Capitol, rear, is shown behind an oil refinery on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Our changing climate is an existential crisis. Human-caused global warming and attendant climate changes have already had catastrophic impacts for people and the planet.

Not only does climate change create new ecological and human health problems, but it also acts as a risk multiplier making existing problems like air quality, natural disasters and species loss more intense.

The global proliferation and dependence on fossil fuels are directly tied to intensifying climate change and its inequitable impacts, which is why we need a complete and equitable fossil fuel phaseout.The impacts of climate change disproportionately impact our most vulnerable and marginalized communities even when their emissions far subseed those of wealthy developed communities and nations. Here in Utah, our poor air quality is both a product of the continued emission of greenhouse gasses and a consequence of increased levels of ozone, wildfire smoke and allergens that come with climate change.

In line with inequities within our region, air quality is worse for our neighbors on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. These patterns of inequitable and disproportionate experiences of the worst effects of climate change are at the core of the climate justice movement, which seeks system change to ensure that solutions to climate change center the frontline communities who are most vulnerable to climate chaos and offer solutions for creating safe and equitable environmental futures for everyone.

In December, we attended the UNFCC COP 28 meeting in Dubai, where we conducted research about how strategic coalitions of non-governmental organizations advocate for climate justice within international climate change diplomacy. We attended actions put on by groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Climate Action, Climate Action Network, Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development and Don’t Gas Africa calling for an end to fossil fuels through a “just and equitable fossil fuel phase out” and a “direct, rapid, just and equitable transition to 100% renewable energy.”

These actions spoke directly to one of the key areas of negotiation at COP 28: a fight over the “phase down,” or “phase out” of fossil fuels. These two small words — out or down — were at times accompanied by unabated, signaling an ideological fight over how to handle the energy transition, whether fossil fuels should be unilaterally ushered out, or whether technofixes might enable fossil fuels to linger longer.

These intentional language choices show a remarkable difference in a global approach to addressing climate change and the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

Climate justice advocates, small Island nations faced with sea-level rise and some developing nations called for a complete phase out of all fossil fuels, including advocating for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet, many of the largest emitting developed nations and fossil-fuel dependent governments sought a phase down of unabated fossil fuels leaving room for continued use of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, liquid natural gas and coal and the expansion of geoengineering technologies such as carbon capture.

The final Global Stocktake agreement referenced phase down only once, calling for “accelerating efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal.” Instead, the agreement called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

While news coverage of COP 28 heralds the agreement because it is the first time that transitioning away from fossil fuels has been made explicit in global emission reduction targets, the language of a transition is far from what is needed to address climate change, support frontline communities and ensure justice. The agreement fails to emphasize the need to stop new fossil fuel development, which is vital for ensuring a systematic transition to just energy systems. Despite the agreement calling for the phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, the grip, financial and otherwise, of fossil fuel industries on global climate pathways threatens to delay the vital actions needed to meet the needs of frontline communities today.

COP28 saw the most representatives from fossil fuel industries than any previous COP. These ideological conflicts over the language of transition reflect a deeper unease in the way industry leaders continue to influence international climate diplomacy.

It is clear the world is already in the transition away from fossil fuels, making this wording a mere statement of fact as opposed to a call for the system change to meet the Paris Agreement targets. How is it that in 2024, nearly 30 years since widespread recognition of the need to transition away from fossil fuels, world leaders are still debating whether to phase out, phase down, or transition away from fossil fuels?

It is time to unequivocally declare the role of fossil fuels in climate change and call for a complete, equitable, fossil fuel phase out.

Danielle Endres

Danielle Endres, Ph.D., is a professor of Communication and Director of the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah whose research focuses on energy democracy. The views expressed in this op-ed are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Utah.

Jessie Chaplain

Jessie Chaplain, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah whose research focuses on climate justice advocacy at UNFCC COP conferences. The views expressed in this op-ed are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Utah.

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