WATCH: Johan Rockström says fossil fuel ‘phase-out’ or ‘phase-down’ at COP28 wouldn’t be enough

EXCLUSIVE: One of the world's most influential Earth scientists, Johan Rockström, has told edie at COP28 that delegates at the climate summit should press for a final agreement on fossil fuels that goes beyond an initial ‘phase-out’ or ‘phase-down’ statement.

COP28 began in Dubai on 30 November and, with less than a week of negotiations left to go, the big dividing line in the negotiating room is between whether nations should commit to phasing fossil fuels down or out.

The direction of travel for ending coal has been set, but the debate is proving challenging to wrangle with regard to oil and gas. Petrostates are calling for a ‘phase-down’ of fossil fuels that are not ‘abated’ by man-made carbon capture tech, while other factions including the EU and Alliance of Small Island Developing States want to see unambiguous language around a ‘phase-out’.

Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told edie’s publisher Luke Nicholls: “Ever since the last COP, we’ve been in very intensive discussions with this COP Presidency, with the UNFCCC, that this is the moment to really take the mitigation agenda seriously.”

He expanded that early and consistent engagement was particularly necessary given that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a petrostate with 40% of government funding derived from oil and gas.

The nation selected its Energy and Technology Minister and Special Envoy for Climate Change Dr Sultan Al Jaber as COP28 President. But Jaber also holds the reins as chief executive at ADNOC, the state-owned energy company.

Al Jaber has stated that he will “push for the highest possible ambition to ever come out of a COP”. But confidence in his leadership has been dented time and again by his responsibilities at ADNOC, including an instance in which he stated there is “no science” to suggest that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement.

Rockström said: “The question of phase-out or phase-down is, of course, a question that needs to be sorted here in Dubai. But what we expect, and what I think everyone here should expect, is a plan.  And that plan has to be not one sentence, but two pages.

“A statement on phase-out or phase-down.. I would argue that this is kind of an academic question today. What we need is a really concrete plan of what happens between now and 2025, when we need to bend the global curve of emissions; what happens between 2025 and 2030, when we need to cut global emissions by half and reduce emissions with a pace of 6-7% per year;… and then cut emissions by half every decade.”

“We have delayed by so much that the speed by which this has to happen is so high now.”

A meaningful plan, Rockström elaborated, should be science-based in terms of the emissions cuts needed this decade because “the thing that counts is the area under the [emissions] curve”.

The plan should also differentiate between different fossil fuels; between power generation and heavy industry; and between different regions, in Rockström’s view.

Moreover, it should detail measures to mobilise unprecedented levels of finance to support the energy transition. Rockström said that while the energy transition will create a more affordable system in the future, it will be challenging economically and also socially in the coming years, meaning that policymakers will need to navigate their way through “the gauntlet” in a way that “creates a soft landing” on the other side.

He spoke out against rhetoric whereby a fossil fuel phase-out is regarded as synonymous with an unjust transition and economic decline, arguing that a well-managed transition will come with a multitude of long-term socioeconomic gains.

You can access all of edie’s COP28 content here.

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