We’re Crossing a Global Tipping Point on Fossil Fuels and There’s No Going Back
Photo by John Gibbons / Unsplash

We’re Crossing a Global Tipping Point on Fossil Fuels and There’s No Going Back

The post-oil genie's out of the bottle. It ain't ever going back. Get ready for the new world that's emerging.

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
6 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

The COP28 agreement has provoked mixed feelings. Some are rejoicing that finally the elephant in the room, ignored for 27 years, has now been made visible. Some are despairing that 28 years of talking has left us with a banal recognition of the obvious.

Both have missed the more critical issue: that the world has crossed a global tipping point in which every country has now woken up to the reality that the age of fossil fuels is drawing to a close. We’re walking into a whole new world. And this is a genie that can never be put back into the bottle.

Markets move on the basis of perceptions. The global reverberations of this agreement will impact decisions at all scales – not only among governments and intergovernmental agencies, but among boardrooms, investors, local authorities, business of all sizes, civil society, and beyond.

This COP will be remembered as the one where an energy executive presiding over the seventh-largest oil producer in the world, managed to get Saudi Arabia, Iraq, China, Russia and many other oil-producing detractors on board, however reluctantly, with the recognition that we should “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems”.

Above all, though, we should be wary of some of the loudest voices – such as Al Gore – who have done their best to singularly blame Arab petrostates for an agreement that did not endorse a total phase-out of fossil fuels.

While the latter certainly played their part in watering down the final text, Al Gore carefully shielded the world’s number one petrostate, the United States, from serious scrutiny – the country has the biggest fossil fuel expansion plans of all; and he obscured the fact that the trillions worth of finance needed for the transition was not actually being offered by the Western countries pontificating about a phase-out.

Despite his criticisms, the UAE’s COP28 presidency achieved what no previous COP had ever even tried, let alone achieved: it got the Saudis on board with a text endorsing the global move away from fossil fuels. And the latter weren’t happy about it: the delegation refused to applaud when COP president Sultan Al Jaber noted this was the first time that language on fossil fuels had ever been mentioned in a global UN climate agreement. Even Russia’s representative commented: “We are not happy but we all agree.”

For 27 years, COP after COP failed to even recognise fossil fuels as the root cause of the climate crisis. Which is why we should not dismiss the significance of this language taking the global stage, against the early opposition of oil-producing nations.

It prompted the UN climate chief, Simon Stiell, to describe the text as “the beginning of the end” for oil, gas and coal – wording that mirrors what the International Energy Agency concluded in the 2023 World Energy Outlook.

So yes, it’s only the beginning, and it’s a text that is far from perfect. But it’s going to have a seismic impact, because it signals how global consciousness, major institutions, all governments, have signed up to the inescapable vision of the final necessity of a world after oil.

This result is as much a reflection of how slow governments are to catch up with the reality of the current transformation, as it is an amplifier of that transformation.

The naming of fossil fuels on a global scale achieved at this UN climate summit might well seem stupendously obvious to those who are fighting at the coalface of the climate crisis. And I sympathise with that sense of perplexed frustration, that it’s taken this long for the world to formally face up to what we all know.

Yet, now that governments are finally collectively acknowledging the fact that fossil fuels must be made a thing of history, this in itself will trigger markets to move even faster in that direction. Of course, there are critical gaps in the text, not only on key areas around the energy transformation, but around climate finance. We need to work harder than ever to close these gaps.

There is a broader issue that remains poorly understood by world governments.

During the first week of the summit, I had warned heads of state at COP28 that the age of oil is being driven to extinction by unstoppable exponential technology disruptions in energy, transport, food and information.

Those disruptions are undoing the sinews of the global industrial production paradigm, and on track to completely displace them within the next two decades in what I’ve called a ‘global phase shift’ – faster than most believe possible, but still too slow to evade the climate danger zone (experts looking at these confounding disruptions warn that the current pace of change is too slow to avoid breaching the 1.5°C safe limit – we’re currently hurtling closer toward a planet-wrecking 3°C).

But it’s still faster than conventional analysts understand. Consider, for instance, that Sinopec – the world’s largest oil refining, gas and petrochemicals conglomerate, based in China – has brought forward its forecast of the coming peak of Chinese oil demand by two years, concluding it’s already arrived.

So this global transformation cannot be stopped. And even while its scale and pace will continue to surprise, it’s still not happening as comprehensively and at the speed it needs to – most of all, if we fail to understand it and adapt our entire civilisational structures to it, we will face the risk of not just ecological collapse, but also economic and social collapse at multiple scales.

COP28 has taken the first major step over the past three decades to bring foundational clarity on one of the most important components of this transformation: that we are, indeed, in the midst of a great global phase-shift which will see us move beyond fossil fuels, one way or another, before mid-century.

Even Big Oil has hailed the agreement. Is it greenwashing? Probably – but we now have a basis to double-down on why Big Oil itself admits to being a dinosaur.

Is it cause for celebration? Perhaps not, at a time when earth systems continue to collapse at a rate that far exceeds the transition, and when mounting evidence suggests we are on track to breach the 1.5°C safe limit.

But will this agreement help us move faster? I think so. Just today, news emerged that the second biggest listed bank in France committed to stopping new investments in fossil fuel extraction, and tripling investments in renewable energy. So it's already started, and yes, this will begin to snowball.

Perhaps the most important message I tried to deliver at COP28 was that this will not necessarily require painful sacrifices: to the contrary, it will open up new avenues for prosperity within planetary boundaries, allowing us to escape the clutches of outmoded industries which are not just hurting the earth but crumbling under their own weight.

And we can partly accelerate the system changes we need by leveraging market forces to ramp up key technologies in energy, transport, food and beyond, which will help transform the rules and dynamics by which these sectors currently work.

The biggest and most transformational victory, by far, is the global adoption of the 2030 tripling renewable energy goal, which was also specifically endorsed by 130 countries, two-thirds of the world. No COP has ever even contemplated a renewable energy target before.

But COP28 defied sceptics by becoming the first time all governments recognised renewables as the primary vehicle to solving the climate crisis. Bruce Douglas, CEO of the Global Renewables Energy Alliance, rightly called it “a paradigm shift in the energy transition”.

If implemented, this will accelerate clean energy adoption, slashing costs by half, helping to push past the tripling target, and taking a major chunk out of global fossil demand – in turn accelerating the phase-down and eventual phase-out of fossil fuels.

Change is already exponential in energy: but we’re still only at the beginning of those exponential S-curves, which means it’s not going to slowdown, it’s going to speed up. We have to hit the pedal to the metal by marshalling investments, restructuring regulations, expanding grids, creating new energy ownership and trading rights, and eliminating barriers.

Citizens everywhere now have a basis to pressurise their governments on real delivery, based on having agreed at COP28 that leaving fossil fuels behind while ramping up renewables is necessary, and inviting each other to do so.

But the biggest elephant in the room – the one that left the building – has to be addressed: demanding and expecting a country which has an entire economy dependent on oil to phase it out, especially a developing one, without offering that country a lifeline and roadmap to phase up a thriving post-carbon energy system is a kind of madness.

We have to do more than righteously demand a phase-out. We have to focus on extending those lifelines and charting those roadmaps to make every country in the world and its citizens say ‘this is the future we want’. That means ensuring that the support, the finance, the logistics, the expertise and the technology is available.

Whether it’s at the next COP, or by building new coalitions across nations and regions, we can this use step forward to take the next giant leap into our post-carbon future.

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