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Pierre Friedlingstein: There are no “magical climate solutions”

Nothing matters more than ending fossil fuel consumption, says one of the world's leading climate scientists.

By Nick Ferris

The EU is heading to Cop28 – the latest UN Climate Conference, taking place at the end of November in Dubai – with one key policy ambition: “A global phase-out of unabated fossil fuels and a peak in their consumption in this decade”, according to a memo released after a meeting of environment ministers in October. 

If negotiators achieve this ambition, it would be a landmark moment. Every year, the 198 countries that gather aim to agree on a cover text that acts as a major policy signal for countries to follow in the year ahead, but fossil fuels rarely get a mention. 

The best parties have ever agreed to on fossil fuels is to “phase down unabated coal power” – i.e. nothing on oil and gas, and not even necessarily a total phase-out of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel there is. This line was included in the cover texts of both Cop26 in Glasgow, and at Cop27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, with no improvement. 

This is simply not good enough, says Pierre Friedlingstein, one of the world’s leading climate scientists. 

“Every year we see another Cop, but the gap between where we are and where we need to be on climate action grows ever larger”, he tells Spotlight. “Year after year, the elephant in the room is fossil fuels, and yet year after year, we fail to produce a plan to phase them out”. 

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Friedlingstein is the director of the Global Carbon Budget, which is published each year just ahead of the Cop, and is recognised globally as the most comprehensive annual assessment of carbon dioxide emissions. Last year’s report had 105 contributors from 80 organisations and 18 countries.

When Friedlingstein began  work on his PhD  in 1990, the climate conversation was only just getting started, The Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit that established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in 1992. The first  assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was also published in 1990. For the latest assessment published in 2023, Friedlingstein was a lead author of the most recent assessment, published this year.

“It is very depressing”, he says. “When I started out, all the work on carbon cycles was about what might happen in the future if we don’t act. But now it is clear that we haven’t acted fast enough, and we are already living in a world with unmanageable extreme weather, and unprecedented global temperatures”. 

Friedlingstein has one key message for the thousands of delegates who are set to appear at Cop28 in Dubai: Focus on fossil fuels. “So long as we keep burning fossil fuels, nothing else really matters”, he says. 

“The media is obsessed with all kinds of magical climate solutions. It could be machinery to reverse warming, it could be microbes in the soil, it could be anything that sounds exciting or has a nice photo”, Friedlingstein adds. “But none of this matters if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels.” 

[See also: How quickly are sea levels rising?]

The carbon budget produced by Friedlingstein and his team last year shows that on average over the past decade, burning fossil fuels has led to 35 GtCO2/yr of CO2 per year, compared to 5 GtCO2/yr emitted in the land use sector, which includes deforestation and carbon emissions from farming (significant volumes of methane emissions are also produced, but this is not counted by the Global Carbon Budget). 

In 2022, the team’s carbon models determine that 37.5 GtCO2 was released from fossil fuel burning, which is ten-times greater than the 3.9 GtCO2 expected to be emitted by land use. 

“Deforestation is essentially irrelevant, because the fossil fuel numbers are so big”, says Friedlingstein. “From a climate perspective, you could argue that the carbon contribution from land-use does not really matter.”

[See also: 5 things to watch for at Cop28]

He adds, though, that there are lots of other reasons that make forests worthy of protection. “Forests remain very important to protect biodiversity, for the indigenous populations that rely on forest ecosystems for their livelihoods, as well as to prevent soil erosion and sustain water supplies.”  

If fossil fuels are key, the bad news is that the latest data shows that humanity’s thirst remains unquenched. According to the International Energy Agency, more than $1trn will be invested in fossil fuels globally this year, with that figure increasing for each of the last three years.  

Governments are also continuing to pour billions into fossil fuel subsidies each year. In 2022, spurred by subsidies provided to help consumers with energy prices, G20 governments provided a record $1.4trn, despite pledging in 2009 “to phase out and rationalise over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies while providing targeted support for the poorest”. 

There is significant scepticism over whether Cop28 can be a watershed moment for fossil fuels, given that president of the talks, Sultan Al Jaber, is also CEO of the UAE national oil company. “Whether we like it or not, the world will continue to need [fossil fuels]”, he said in a recent interview. “My focus is to phase out emissions from everything. Regardless of where it comes from.”

[See also: "On the outside looking in": Labour's shadow Cop]

In spite of all of this, Friedlingstein finds ways to remain optimistic. “There are now a large number of countries around the world reducing emissions, even if it is not yet quick enough”, he says. “The speed at which renewables and electric vehicles are  being adopted is also good news.” 

Hope also lies in the physics of how carbon in the atmosphere operates, says Friedlingstein. 

“Luckily, there is not much inertia in the system. This means that if we stopped producing  emissions today, then warming would essentially stop today: there is not a large amount of additional warming expected from current carbon levels”, he says. “This means that we can still limit a lot of damage.

“I lost hope that there will be no climate change. But I have not lost hope that we cannot make a big difference if we act now.”  

This piece first appeared in a Spotlight Sustainability print report on 17 October 2023. Read it here.

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