Bidding farewell to fossil fuels at COP28: How to get it right this time

A global agreement to phase out unabated fossil fuels is essential for the EU’s climate goals 

Only in sectors where they are hard to replace, such as cement and steelmaking, and only if their emissions are captured to prevent their release into the atmosphere. Those are the conditions of the global agreement to phase out unabated fossil fuels that the EU is seeking to secure at COP28, the UN’s principal conference on climate change, starting at the end of this month in the UAE. 

It is an indispensable agreement. The urgency of the climate crisis demands bold action: an annual 7% emissions reduction is now needed to keep the Paris Agreement targets within sight, according to the World Economic Forum. That won’t be easy, and the longer serious climate action is postponed, the harder it will be to keep them in sight. While the EU is a major emitter, it is hardly the only one, so its climate targets alone won’t save the planet. So, what can the Union do to secure a ban on unabated fossil fuels use, and learn from COP27 setbacks, when a similar agreement was blocked at the very last minute?

1. Demonstrate leadership and ambition in a world that remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels for economic growth and political success 

The transition away from fossil fuels will undoubtedly have a significant impact on a global economy that remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Not only are they a major source of energy but also a major revenue stream for many countries: in some, fossil fuels even vastly outstrip all other sources of revenue. As a result, these countries may be reluctant to agree to a phase-out, fearing negative economic consequences. 

The EU should continue to demonstrate its commitment to climate action by aiming for ambitious targets for renewable energy deployment (by securing global action to triple it), and emissions reductions (by doubling energy efficiency rates). With widespread global support, including from China and the US, a deal is within reach. The EU should seize this opportunity to show that renewable energy can progressively replace fossil fuel use, softening the economic impact of a phase-out. 

2. Provide adequate financial support and assistance for the global transition to clean energy  

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources will require a massive technological and infrastructure overhaul. The EU should therefore provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries who lack adequate means to achieve the decarbonisation of their economies. 

Recent Just Energy Transition Partnerships signed with South Africa and Senegal, which accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels while increasing access to finance for the clean energy transition and safeguarding a just transition, are groundbreaking approaches that should serve as models with other countries to complement global initiatives. However, such agreements should also be accessible to the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change but have less bureaucratic capacity, including small islands or least-developed nations. 

3. Build a strong and broad coalition in favour of a fossil fuel phase-out 

Achieving a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels will necessitate unprecedented levels of international cooperation. Countries with different economic and political systems will need to find common ground and agree on a shared vision for the future. 

The EU should work closely with other countries that are also committed to phasing out fossil fuels before and during the conference, such as small island developing states, a coalition of countries advocating for ambitious climate action or like-minded partners like Kenya. These alliances can provide a strong negotiating bloc and help to isolate countries that are resisting change. Sultan Al-Jaber, who is not only COP28 president but also the CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, could prove his critics wrong by bringing fossil fuel producers into the tent and getting them on board with an agreement to phase out fossil fuels. Indeed, for him, the phase-down is inevitable and essential. 

4. An agreement that is perceived as equitable is more sustainable 

Developed nations, having historically relied heavily on fossil fuels for their economic growth, bear a greater responsibility to curb their emissions and provide financial and technological assistance to developing countries. Often located in climate-vulnerable regions or lacking adequate adaptive capabilities, they face disproportionate consequences from climate change. Furthermore, phasing out fossil fuels will throttle economic growth without readily available or cost-effective alternatives. 

This principle, enshrined in the Paris Agreement as “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities”, should inform any future agreement on phasing out fossil fuels. Failure to address equity concerns could lead to resentment and resistance, undermining the efficacy of a global phase-out agreement. 

  • Thomas Linders

    Thomas joined the FleishmanHillard Energy & Transport team in early 2017, with a primary focus on the aviation, automotive and logistics sectors. He advises his clients on stakeholder engagement and legislative advocacy and supports them in creating durable relationships with policymakers. Before joining FleishmanHillard, Thomas...

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