Climate Change

Changing narratives

It is time we discussed the science behind the phase out of fossil fuels; by when and which fuel

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 15 December 2023

Illustration: Ritika Bohra / CSEIllustration: Ritika Bohra / CSE

As I sit down to write this, COP28 — the latest climate conference being held in Dubai this year — has entered its second week. The conference is being held when the world is more fractured and fissured than ever before — divided over the two wars and horrendous human toll — and at the same time being brought to its knees because of extreme weather events that are ravaging the poor. It also comes at a time, when the world — particularly, the already rich and industrialised world — has little political appetite for real emission reductions. They have switched fuels, from coal to natural gas in most cases, which has brought down carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to an extent, but now when the going gets tough, public opinion is wavering on the costs of transition. It is important to note that natural gas is a fossil fuel and has a climate footprint. Action is now tough, so it is easy to pass the buck to the rest of the world, where economic growth is a necessity.

In this grim backdrop, it is good news that the world has come together to agree on the loss and damage fund and even put money into it. It is another matter that the funds are still nowhere near the amounts needed to pay for the damages that climate change is bringing to the poorest in the world. It is also another matter that the rules of this fund must come without new conditionalities and not push the already vulnerable further into debt or development that makes no sense. But still let’s take a moment to exhale.

There are two other developments that I would like you to take note of; not because they are earth-shattering but because they are game changers — that is, if we can get them right. The first is the issue of finance; it is a make-or-break issue in climate negotiations. The reason is that many countries, including India, need the right to development. But when the world has literally exhausted its carbon budget — the amount of CO2 that the world can emit to keep temperatures be-low 1.5°C rise — the only way ahead for these countries is to develop differently; to move away from coal to renewables; and to electric vehicles, before they start building cities for private cars. They cannot afford the transition even with the decreasing costs of renewable energy. So the question of finance is not about charity but about payment for this transformation to keep the world safe.

At every COP, discussions stall because of this question of money. Then, the world gets busy counting how much is needed and how huge the gap is. But at COP28, the discussion on finance has taken a step forward — not because new money at the scale needed has been put forward but the need to discuss the quality of finance is now on the table.

The COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber raised the question of finance to be accessible and affordable to countries. In the draft document of the Global Stocktake (GST), which is expected to be the major outcome of COP28, it is mentioned that countries need finance that does not add to their debt burden. Currently, even if you accept the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) accounts of climate finance, which says that the world is close to reaching $100 billion annually — a promise made a decade ago — the bulk of this money comes as loans, which would then put further strain on the already stressed economies. So, this change in narrative is important, but needs a future road map.

The second issue is of fossil fuels; it is as intrinsic as it is controversial. For too long, the western discourse has been simplistic: phase out fossil fuels and then, almost as if it is synonymous, phase out coal. This discourse has gone nowhere. The fact is that the production and use of fossil fuel is increasing, and not just in our world. The US, today, is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, beating Qatar.

The US is also producing more oil per day than ever seen in history; 13.5 million barrels a day, which beats Saudi Arabia. But it is easy to paper over this fact when coal becomes the whipping boy. There is no question that coal is bad; but it is also the fuel used in the world that has not yet moved to somewhat cleaner gas. Targeting coal means shifting the burden of the transition to countries that cannot afford even dirty energy to meet the needs of their people.

At COP28 this issue needs to be out in the open. It is time we discussed the science behind the phase out of fossil fuels; by when and which fuel. Then the logical question would be which fuels the world will get to use and who gets to use the remaining quota of oil, gas or coal that the world has time to burn. When I write next on the last week of COP28, this is what I will discuss further with you.

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