The Fossil Fuel Conundrum on the Road to COP28

Can a just transition take shape when deeply embedded interests are at stake?

As COP28 approaches, the fault lines are clear. Scientists unanimously agree that phasing out fossil fuels is crucial to averting climate catastrophe. Yet oil, gas and coal still power our world, including COP28 host the United Arab Emirates. Can a just transition take shape when deeply embedded interests are at stake?

Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE’s special climate envoy, insists cooperation, not confrontation, is vital. As CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, he argues that fossil-fuel expertise can enable change, stating, “We cannot simply unplug the current energy system.”

Other voices strongly disagree. “The fossil fuel industry has been actively aggravating the climate crisis and blocking progress for decades,” said Harjeet Singh of Climate Action Network International. With COP28 now being steered by a fossil-fuel giant, activists warn of an intractable conflict of interest.

So what steps are oil and gas companies taking as scrutiny mounts? Many tout emissions reductions, carbon offsets and token renewable investments to polish their image. But as the UN and activists highlight, expanding hydrocarbon energy production utterly contradicts climate goals.

But how committed is the industry beyond superficial greenwashing?

The Proof is in the Projects

In 2021 alone, fossil fuel companies allocated over $100 billion to new upstream projects, according to a report from the International Energy Agency. This continues a long-term trend of channelling billions into extracting yet more oil, gas and coal — the prime driver of climate change.

Meanwhile, renewable energy investments pale in comparison. The largest fossil fuel corporations each spend 100 times more on extraction than on fledgling green energy projects.

Bottom lines still dominate boardroom strategy, reflecting an industry clinging to business as usual amid the climate storm. This underscores the limited sway of voluntary measures lacking regulatory teeth.

The UN Secretary-General recently declared, “New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production is delusional.” Until investment flows fundamentally shift, fossil fuel companies ‘net zero commitments seem more PR than progress.

Pressuring a Powerful Lobby

Dwarfed by Big Oil’s muscle, progressive policymakers face intense headwinds driving change. In the US alone, fossil fuel companies spent over $100 million lobbying Congress in 2022.

Their obstructionism also reared its head in the EU, where leaked documents revealed ExxonMobil and Shell lobbying fiercely against stronger climate policy. Such political influence impedes urgently needed frameworks to wind down coal, oil and gas.

With COP28 now chaired by an oil major CEO, activists caution that commercial interests could again overpower climate imperatives. “Fossil fuel producers should not be close to the climate negotiating table,” said Chiara Martinelli of Climate Action Network Europe.

So, how do we counter their outsized clout? Grassroots pressure and sinking clean energy costs help, but putting health over profit remains difficult. “The fossil fuel industry’s invisible hand is still writing our future,” laments Greenpeace EU climate campaigner Silvia Pastorelli.

Vision for a Just Transition

Beyond highlighting obstructionism, civil society groups say constructive ideas are vital in spurring change. We must consider transitional support in a fossil-fuel phase-out for workers and communities, including low-income countries dependent on oil and gas revenue.

A well-managed transition can bring significant benefits to public health, the environment and society. But it hinges on unprecedented cooperation among governments, corporations and citizens.

The Poor Peoples’ Campaign, a US social justice movement, promotes a vision for change centred on equity and care for marginalised groups. Alongside fossil fuel reductions, their platform calls for renewable energy access, green jobs, climate finance, and adaptation support for vulnerable nations.

With vast renewable potential worldwide, an inclusive transition can improve lives while replacing polluting infrastructure. But political will is vital to steer change and ensure its benefits are justly distributed.

Seeds of a Sustainable Future

From Australia to Nigeria, inspiring examples demonstrate what grassroots climate solutions can achieve. In the coal-reliant Australian state of Victoria, citizen groups helped push the state to enshrine a renewable energy target of 50% by 2030 in law. Nigeria’s vibrant off-grid solar market leapfrogged inadequate national electricity access, with small firms providing clean power to millions.

People-centred initiatives like these offer hope of a better future free from fossil fuel dependence. But they urgently need the support of climate policy and investment at scale. As global emissions continue to rise, replicating these successes remains a race against time.

With COP28 now on the horizon, the crossroads is clear. On one hand, further climate inaction raises dire threats to human security and ecological stability. On the other, a new chapter remains possible — one where clean energy and social equity triumph over the grip of fossil fuels.

Far more unites than divides us in forging this future. Protecting lives and livelihoods is a universal aim. The tools to achieve it exist. But at COP28 and beyond, we face a moment of truth demanding courage, care and perseverance like never before. The stakes could not be higher.


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Christopher Nial
Christopher Nial
Christopher Nial is closely monitoring climate change impact on global public health. He serves as a Senior Partner at FINN Partners, is part of the Global Public Health Group, and co-leads public health initiatives across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
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