COP28 hot take: forget oil/gas phase-out, focus on speeding up energy transition

“The clean energy transition may well accelerate even further through stronger climate policies.” – Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director, International Energy Agency (IEA)

As I write this, COP28 delegations are frantically negotiating the text of the event’s final agreement, trying to overcome resistance by OPEC countries and their allies to include a call for the phase-out (or down) of fossil fuels use. Good luck to them. 

Why? 

Because the Saudis and their pals, including Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, believe we have begun a golden age of hydrocarbons where demand, already at record levels, grows to mid-century and profits abound. Anyone who believes otherwise wasn’t paying attention to September’s World Petroleum Congress (WPC) in Calgary or hasn’t read OPEC’s World Oil Outlook 2045. The WPC was only newsworthy because of the obviously choreographed “slow energy transition” narrative parroted by every CEO, politician, and trade association flunky. Otherwise, the event was a glorified, poorly attended trade show. 

The real fireworks occurred two weeks before. On September 12, Executive Director Fatih Birol penned an Financial Times op-ed pushing the International Energy Agency’s “fast energy transition” analysis. 

“This year’s [World Energy Outlook] report, to be released next month, shows the world is on the cusp of a historic turning point. Based only on today’s policy settings by governments worldwide — even without any new climate policies — demand for each of the three fossil fuels is set to hit a peak in the coming years. This is the first time that a peak in demand is visible for each fuel this decade…”

This decade. Maybe before 2030, depending upon the success of COP28 and subsequent COPs. Birol’s forecast was new and bold.

And OPEC was mightily, mightily annoyed. The organization replied with its own statement two days later. 

“Such narratives only set the global energy system up to fail spectacularly. It would lead to energy chaos on a potentially unprecedented scale, with dire consequences for economies and billions of people across the world,” wrote OPEC Secretary General HE Haitham Al Ghais.

He accused the IEA of being “ideologically driven” and not fact-based. Then he dropped the hammer.

“Thankfully, there has been a reawakening across many societies of the need for energy security and economic development to go hand-in-hand with reducing emissions. In turn, this has led to a reevaluation by some policymakers on their approach to energy transition pathways [emphasis added].”

Someone, or someones, it appeared, had been politicking ahead of COP28, recruiting allies for the slow transition team. Dr. Omar Farouk Ibrahim, secretary general of the African Petroleum Producers Organization, made it abundantly clear during a WPC press conference that his members were solidly behind the OPEC narrative. The same for Premier Smith during her WPC presser. 

“This is not an industry that’s winding down,” she told reporters. “It’s an industry that’s transitioning away from emissions.”

Reports are coming out of COP28 that negotiators are making progress, that there has been a “change in tone.” Perhaps the two sides settle on “long-term phase-out of fossil fuels,” as was suggested by Uganda energy and mineral development minister Ruth Nankabirwa on social media. 

Nevertheless, the agreement still isn’t binding. And the hydrocarbon champions have made it abundantly clear how they see the future unfolding. 

My hot take on the final agreement is that including language about a future phase-out or down of fossil fuels is a non-issue. The energy transition will reduce oil and gas use long before a government-led phase-out has any effect. 

Dr. Birol, not OPEC, get’s it right:

“With today’s policies already bringing the fossil fuel peaks into sight, decision makers need to be nimble. The clean energy transition may well accelerate even further through stronger climate policies. But the energy world is changing fast and for the better.”

Those pushing for a fossil fuels phase-out, like former US vice-president Al Gore, would be better served pushing for the “stronger climate policies” Dr. Birol mentions.

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