The difference between ‘phasing out’ and ‘phasing down’ fossil fuels could determine whether climate disaster is averted or not – governments have a duty to explain what the terms they are squabbling over mean
One of the best lessons I was ever taught as a journalist came not from an editor, but from my late great uncle who spent his entire career in the insurance industry. Precision of language is absolutely critical, he would say, one opaque word in an insurance policy can cost you your job and your company millions of pounds. The same is true in journalism, and it is also true in international diplomacy.
All of which made it somewhat worrying to yesterday watch the lead of the UK’s COP28 delegation, dodge attempts by MPs to pin him down on whether the government supports the “phasing out” or the “phasing down” of unabated fossil fuels. These are two very different things.
“Phasing out fossil fuels” is different to “phasing out unabated fossil fuels”, which is different to “phasing down unabated fossil fuels”, which is different to “phasing down fossil fuels”.
“Phasing out fossil fuels” all but guarantees an end to manmade global warming, even if concerns over agricultural emissions would still have to be addressed. “Phasing out unabated fossil fuels” points to the same encouraging outcome, assuming you have confidence carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies can deliver on their promises. But “phasing down fossil fuels”, be they unabated or not, leaves the door wide open for continued emissions and the rolling climate catastrophes that come with them. It is a tacit commitment to either build a carbon removal market at huge cost and scale to permanently address continued emissions, or sit back and watch vast swathes of the planet burn. Thems the only options.
And yet when asked to clarify the government’s position on whether it wanted to see the final text at the COP28 Summit include a commitment to “phase down” or “phase out” unabated fossil fuels, Energy Security and Net Zero Minister Graham Stuart gave an answer that bordered on the dismissive.
“Our belief is that we should focus on phasing down, phasing out, whatever it does, so long as it translates into real action [on] unabated fossil fuels,” he said.
He added that “the language also counts, especially if we are to create the broad coalition that we need for global action” – comments that will be interpreted by observers as a hint the UK could be willing to compromise with those large emerging economies that have signalled they will oppose calls to “phase out” unabated fossil fuels, preferring the vaguer commitment to “phase down” their use.
If this is the strategy, it is diametrically opposed to that of the EU and those countries in the High Ambition Coalition of nations of which the UK used to be a part, who are preparing to robustly make the case that if you want to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement there has to be a commitment to “phase out”, not “down” unabated fossil fuels.
There is obviously less climate risk in bringing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels to a complete end as quickly as possible, but this is a complex issue shrouded in infinite shades of grey and the fog of political obfuscation.
As such, there is actually some merit in Stuart’s argument. Esoteric debates about terminology are less important than the urgent need to deliver real action to tackle unabated fossil fuels. Eight years on from the Paris Agreement global emissions are still rising. As new research highlighted this week, governments and companies are still investing massively in new fossil fuel production.
But the words and the actions are interlinked. As the US author Zig Zigler famously observed, “there is power in words. What you say is what you get.”
If governments remain committed to delivering on the goals of the Paris Agreement – to limiting temperature increases to 1.5C or well below 2C and by extension delivering a net zero emission global economy at some point between 2050 and 2070 – then the distinction between “phasing out” and “phasing down” either “fossil fuels” or “unabated fossil fuels” requires very different policy responses.
If the focus is on tackling “unabated fossil fuels” then the world urgently needs a massive CCS industry and policymakers should be giving a lot more thought as to how one can be delivered at reasonable cost. If the focus is on only “phasing down” fossil fuels then when and how will a carbon removal industry be built? If we are going all in on “phasing out” fossil fuels then where is the strategy for turbocharging clean energy development and managing a just transition for carbon-reliant economies?
Each of these different policy scenarios obviously vary massively depending on the scale of fossil fuel phase down envisioned. Are we talking about relatively modest CCS and carbon removal industries to tackle excess emissions at the margins? Or is the assumption that countless gigatonnes of carbon will have to be captured and removed in perpetuity? Most plausible net zero roadmaps from the likes of the International Energy Agency or Climate Change Committee assume the former. The investment plans from petrostates and oil majors clearly assume the latter, even if they never spell it out explicitly nor explain how this carbon abating infrastructure will be funded.
Precisely the same uncertainties dog the UK government’s controversial new plans to try and ramp up oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. Where is the requisite CCS and carbon removal capacity coming from? Who is going to pay for it? Will it really be delivered at sufficient scale to capture the emissions that will result from a ‘drill, baby, drill’ energy strategy? If this is all about energy security, as the Conservatives’ David TC Davis argued on Question Time last night, at what point does the government start commandeering private oil and gas rigs? When President Trump halts all US gas exports? When the first Russian bomber makes landfall over East Anglia?
Delicious Tory car crash TV.
David TC Davis gets in an absolute mire with the govt’s flagship policy on new drilling licences.
— Best for Britain (@BestForBritain) November 9, 2023
These dynamics are playing out in every country and are challenging the many governments that seem incapable of following the inexorable logic that flows from their own net zero commitments.
Speaking yesterday, Stuart also argued the fixation on phasing out or down fossil fuels was further evidence of an excessive focus on tackling fossil fuel supply rather than demand. Again, there is a lot to recommend in this argument. Governments will inevitably find it hard to curtail fossil fuel supplies, push up prices, and risk shortages if demand remains high.
If you accept the imperfect but informative ‘fossil fuels are narcotics’ analogy, then we have decades of failed drugs policy to prove how fixating on tackling supply will never work. You have to address the root causes of demand at the same time. Supply and demand need to come down in lockstep.
But again, the problem here is that Stuart is almost inadvertently making the case for a much more ambitious and aggressive strategy to curtail demand than that being pursued by the government of which he is a part. If the UK government is wary of committing to a “phase out” of unabated fossil fuels until more is down to curb fossil fuel demand, where is the effective national energy efficiency strategy, why are onshore renewables projects still being blocked, and why was the last offshore wind auction allowed to fail? Equally, where is the new fleet of CCS projects and what are the plans for the carbon removal industry?
None of this is easy. But governments travelling to Dubai to call for a “phasing out” of unabated fossil fuels have a duty to explain how they intend to deliver such a drastic change in the global energy system and what level of CCS abatement they envisage. Those planning to call for a less ambitious “phasing down” of fossil fuels arguably have an even greater obligation to explain precisely how their strategy is compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement, because without such detail they are effectively lobbying for a century of rolling climatic disasters. That is why a “phasing out of unabated fossil fuels” is obviously the more responsible formulation for any new accord.
Actions matter, but so do words.