Will rich nations step away from fossil fuels, as they promised?

Activists mark the start of Climate Week in New York during a demonstration calling for the U.S. government to take action on climate change and reject the use of fossil fuels in New York City, New York, U.S., September 17, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Activists mark the start of Climate Week in New York during a demonstration calling for the U.S. government to take action on climate change and reject the use of fossil fuels in New York City, New York, U.S., September 17, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Activist pressure – not just a COP28 agreement – is what’s needed to move wealthy nations on from coal, oil and gas

Mitzi Jonelle Tan is a climate justice activist from the Philippines. Andreas Sieber is the associate director of policy and campaigns at 350.org

The COP28 U.N. climate summit delivered an overdue global commitment to transition away from fossil fuels. For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has burned away our present and our future.

Just over a month after the summit, there is a chance to build early momentum and make the promises and pledges made at COP28 more concrete.

The EU set a new 2040 EU climate target just last week. Ambition from both it and the United States remains clearly deficient – but their moves can help ignite early moment for other transition initiatives.

Pedro Pedroso, the lead climate negotiator for the G77 group - representing 135 developing nations – pointed out in the aftermath of COP28 that the agreement reached in Dubai hinges on the actions of major polluters.

Wealthy nations are historically the most responsible for the climate crisis. Just five Western countries account for 51% of all oil and gas expansion, with the United States leading in this disgraceful charge.

Countries like the United States and those in Europe need to reverse their fossil fuel expansion plans for oil and gas production urgently. This is not just a matter of fairness but also of safety for all on the planet.

Less than two weeks ago, the Biden administration decided to halt the construction of new liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals. This decision on its own is far from enough, but it is a significant win for the climate movement - a step towards justice and delivering on COP28 commitments.

Just consider: Over 20 LNG export terminals were in the U.S. pipeline. Just one proposed LNG export terminal in Louisiana could have produced emissions 20 times larger than those expected from the controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.

Germany's Special Envoy for Climate Foreign Policy Jennifer Morgan and Paris Agreement co-architect Laurence Tubiana quickly linked the United States’ decision to halt LNG terminals to the momentum generated by COP28's commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The European Union similar cited the COP28 agreement in its recent decision on its new more ambitious 2040 climate target.

However, decisions of this magnitude seldom have a singular cause.

One can hardly imagine the United States taking its LNG step unilaterally without a global framework – but domestic pressure and the collective strength of the climate movement also played a pivotal role.

Tens of thousands took to the streets last September in a targeted protest against fossil fuels. In the same month, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, an activist group fighting against fossil fuels for renewables, identified the LNG terminals as the next significant climate decision for the Biden administration. 

Digital campaigns opposing the LNG terminals garnered over 13 million video views, and petitions to halt the projects received support from more than 400,000 people. 

The Biden campaign headquarters even faced a billboard with the message: “President Biden: Protect your coast, stop LNG exports that threaten ours.”

The decision to halt LNG terminals is a strong testament to the power of people-driven advocacy in shaping a more equitable and sustainable future.

Less than 14 days later, this week, the European Union (EU) announced its 2040 climate target, including the reduction of fossil fuel use.

A look at the target climate target reveals a trajectory in the right direction but still plagued by substantial shortcomings. 

The topline target of 90% net emission reductions should be more specific, for one: at least a 95% reduction by 2040, though in fact net-zero by 2040 is possible.

Phase-out dates for fossil fuels are lacking. The target only speaks of coal being “phased out by 2040”, but leaves the door too wide open for oil and gas.

Studies demonstrate that its possible to phase out coal across the EU by 2030 and fully phase out all fossil fuels for power generation by 2037. 

The phase-out plan must also be one that prioritises genuine emissions reduction. Right now,  the EU plans for 250 megatons of carbon removals and capture each yet - far too much.

As part of the group of the wealthiest nations, bearing disproportionate responsibility for the climate crisis, the EU must align with scientific recommendations and show real leadership.

But the grouping’s 80% reduction target for fossil fuels remains a signpost pointing towards the inevitable demise of the fossil fuel industry.

Fossil fuels are in decline. One could point to the ill-advised decision of the UK government to issue new oil drilling licences in the North Sea – but that is an outlier.The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that even without new policies such as the LNG decision from the U.S. or European 2040 target, all fossil fuels including oil, gas and coal will peak and decline this decade.

Now, more than ever, we must come together and extinguish the fires of the fossil fuel industry once and for all. It will need a strong climate justice movement to get there in time and equitably.

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Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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