A fossil fuel phaseout or phasedown: Does it matter?

Drafts of COP28 agreement refer to the "phasedown/out" of fossil fuels, responsible for most climate emissions. The final wording will likely be disputed. What's the difference and does it matter?

People in the Indian capital of New Delhi regularly suffer from weeks of poisonous smog. (photo: DW)
People in the Indian capital of New Delhi regularly suffer from weeks of poisonous smog. (photo: DW)
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The heated issue of fossil fuel energy, which is responsible for most of the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, has always been divisive at UN climate conferences.

The fact that this year's summit is being hosted by petrostate United Arab Emirates (UAE), a global leader in the oil and gas industry, is focusing the spotlight on the issue even more.

Sultan al-Jaber, who is presiding over this year's COP28 climate talks and also runs the host nation's state-run oil giant ADNOC, has denied media reports in which he appeared to question the scientific consensus that coal, oil and gas must be phased out to curb global warming.

Speaking with reporters on 4 December, al-Jaber insisted his remarks had been taken out of context and that he is "laser-focused" on finding a way to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.

"I have said over and over that the phasedown and the phaseout of fossil fuels is inevitable, that it is essential," said al-Jaber.

Phaseout, phasedown: What's the difference?

It might only be a word of difference, but it is meaningful.

The phasing down of fossil fuels would mean that countries agree to scale back their use of fossil fuels in favor of more climate-friendly energy — non-fossil sources like wind, solar and hydro, and nuclear energy. But it still implies that fossil fuels would be a part of the world's energy mix as efforts to get climate change under control continue.

A phaseout, however, calls for a complete end to burning fossil fuels for energy. That action plan, so far, hasn't found much support with delegates at previous climate summits, especially from nations relying on oil and gas exports for revenue.

Major producers like the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia have previously resisted calls for eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Most recently, on 4 December, Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman said he would "absolutely not" agree to phasing down fossil fuels, never mind phasing them out.

"And I assure you not a single person — I'm talking about governments — believes in that," he told Bloomberg TV.

Earlier this year, UAE Climate Change and Environment Minister Mariam Almheiri instead backed the phasing out of fuel emissions, not the exploitation of oil, gas and coal. She argued that a phaseout would only hurt countries that depend on fossil fuels to prop up their economies.


"The renewable space is advancing and accelerating extremely fast but we are nowhere near to be able to say that we can switch off fossil fuels and solely depend on clean and renewable energy," Almheiri told the Reuters news agency.

"We are now in a transition and this transition needs to be just and pragmatic because not all countries have the resources," she said. A November 2023 report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) found that the UAE's state oil company, ADNOC, has a $150-billion (€140-million) investment plan to boost its oil production capacity by 2027.

Instead, Almheiri suggested eliminating fossil fuel emissions using carbon capture and sequestration technology, saying countries could fight warming and continue to produce oil, gas and coal.

Critics, however, have said this approach would be too expensive. And with less than 0.1% of global emissions captured by such technology today, according to research firm BloombergNEF, it's unlikely to be a significant part of the solution any time soon.

Calls for phaseout relatively new at COP

Even though vast body of scientific research has linked back the ongoing use of fossil fuels to climate change for years, COP delegates have not officially spoken about plans to eliminate them until recently.

It was only two years ago at COP26 in Glasgow that negotiators agreed, for the first time, to "phase down unabated coal power and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels."

A year later at UN climate talks in Egypt, a group of more than 80 countries including the European Union and small island nations agreed to upgrade that language to include all fossil fuels. They were ultimately blocked by oil, gas and coal-producing nations opposed to the move.

Despite the 2022 setback, campaigners hope the UN's first global stocktake report, released in September as a review of the world's collective progress toward limiting global heating, will spur delegates to action in Dubai. The UN report called for "scaling up renewable energy and phasing out all unabated fossil fuels," a recommendation echoed by many climate groups and scientists.

"Even a few years ago, it was unthinkable to have a decision on fossil fuel phaseout at COP because of the influence of oil and gas producing countries," Romain Ioualalen of the advocacy organization Oil Change International told DW.

With global carbon dioxide emissions expected to hit a record high in 2023, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the opening of the COP28 climate summit on 1 December that it was time to act.

"We cannot save a burning planet with a firehose of fossil fuels," he said. "The science is clear: the 1.5-degree limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce. Not abate. Phaseout — with a clear timeframe aligned with 1.5 degrees."

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Published: 06 Dec 2023, 2:13 PM
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