Why the Phase-out of Fossil Fuels Must be Linked with Renewable Energy Replacements
Though it has been over eight years since the Paris Agreement, global emissions and temperatures have continued to increase. We are currently headed for a catastrophic 3 °C warming 1. As the world grapples with the escalating impacts of climate change, the shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy (RE) sources has never been more urgent.
Emissions from burning fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming [IPCC]. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised at COP 28, “the 1.5 °C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels.” After two weeks of hard-fought negotiations, COP 28 ended with a Global Stocktake in which almost 200 countries unanimously agreed to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems. While this agreement was heralded by COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber as “historic”, it has been criticized for not going far enough. Over 100 parties lobbied for stronger language and to specifically call for a "phase-out" of oil, gas and coal use; climate-vulnerable small island states were among the most vocal, backed by the United States, Canada, Norway, and representatives from the European Union 2.
Although – according to many – the use of language fell short, true success will come in the form of implementation. "We are what we do, not what we say," Sultan al-Jaber stated during the closing plenary, and "we must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible actions”.
What should the transition away from fossil fuels involve? And how can we ensure that it doesn’t harm the communities that rely on them?
Currently, over 60% of global electricity generated is produced using fossil fuels. We cannot simply switch this power off. To meet rising global energy demands, fossil fuel energy must be replaced by at least an equal amount of clean and renewable energy. This replacement is a challenge, but one we must prioritise.
There has been substantial growth in RE generation over the past decade, particularly from wind power and solar photovoltaics. These sources now account for 12% of global electricity and are the cheapest sources of power in most places 3. Continuing this growth, the world is set to add as much renewable power in the next 5 years as it did in the previous 20 4. The commitment to scale up RE has been further emphasised at COP 28, with official reports calling for the tripling of renewable power by 2030. It is key that this ramp up in RE generation is aligned with a phase-out of fossil fuel plants. Some have argued that this is not necessary on a 1:1 scale, but in fact, a minimum 1:1 RE replacement is crucial for several reasons:
- Ensuring emissions reductions actually occur. When a fossil fuel plant providing energy to the grid is phased out, it creates an energy deficit. If there is not an RE replacement to fill this deficit, it could instead be filled by increasing the capacity of a different fossil fuel plant on the grid. Such a replacement may have a higher emission factor than the phased-out plant, which would lead to an overall increase in emissions. Therefore a 1:1 RE replacement ensures that the deficit is fully filled by a low or zero-carbon source and emissions reductions are actually realised.
- Protecting energy security. Around 940 million people experience frequent power interruptions, while 350 million lack access to adequate electricity and another 133 million have no electricity at all 5. Many of these people inhabit developing countries which operate with an energy deficit, meaning there is not enough power to meet national demand. If a phase-out of fossil fuels is not matched 1:1 with a phase-in of RE, and the infrastructure necessary to support it, the energy deficit could worsen. This not only risks increasing emissions but could also lead to higher energy prices which would harm consumers and increase reliance on energy imports. Worsening the energy deficit would therefore jeopardise energy security and decrease the likelihood of public consent for the transition. The widespread access to clean, safe, and reliable energy is crucial to meet the developmental needs of all.
- Facilitating a just transition. The fossil fuel sector supports approximately 32 million jobs globally6. Phasing out fossil fuels could put these livelihoods at risk, so it must be done according to just transition guidance, i.e., to “green the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind” 7. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy at scale can provide communities with alternative means to generate income through the creation of green jobs.
The Urgency of a Full Transition to Renewable Energy
As we stand at this critical juncture in our battle against climate change, simple adjustments will not suffice. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, while challenging, is not just about reducing emissions but about reshaping our energy landscape to be more sustainable, equitable, and secure for future generations.
The clock is ticking. Our actions now will determine the kind of world we leave behind.
Gold Standard is currently consulting on a new methodology outlining a pathway for the world to reduce its reliance on coal and facilitate an equitable clean energy transition.
1 See UN document
6 See World Energy Employment, IEA
7 See Frequently Asked Questions on just transition, International Labour Organisation