Don't Depend on COP Meetings to Get Us Off Fossil Fuels

With renewables, new technologies, and electrification, we can just stop buying them.

A bunch of oil and gas producers get together at COP27
A bunch of oil and gas producers get together at COP27.

Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

Everyone has been saying for some time that the 1.5-degree target is lost, especially after the failure of the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November.

I have disagreed, noting that we already know exactly what we have to do to stay under the carbon budget. You know the drill—fix the electricity supply, industry, transport and buildings sectors, and the food and financial systems—but nobody wants to because it is just too inconvenient.

Guardian Environment editor Damian Carrington sort of agrees: "The world should be sprinting to rid itself of its fossil fuel addiction as if lives depend on it, because they do, but it is jogging on the spot. The 1.5C goal may not yet be physically impossible to achieve, but COP27 has shown it is politically impossible." Carrington notes that between the fossil fuel lobbyists and the countries that produce them, an agreement that leaves fossil fuels in the ground will be impossible to achieve. Carrington suggests taking to the streets to protest oil companies.

George Monbiot is even more dire, writing, "There are no longer any feasible means of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating if new oil and gas fields are developed," and they are being developed around the world. Monbiot blames the fossil fuel industry and corrupt governments. "We know that the license granted to fossil fuel companies by 50 years of failure has enabled them to make stupendous profits—$2.8bn a day on average across that entire period—and that they need invest only a fraction of this money in politics to buy every politician and every political decision they need."

Top 10 emitters
Top 10 emitters.

 CDP Carbon Majors Database

But there is a problem that we have been talking about since about 2017, when the famous headline, "Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions," was published in the Guardian. These are not companies. These are national entities owned by nations like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. Only two of the top 10 producers in the Carbon Majors Report are companies in the Western sense that we might take to the streets and complain about. Taking to the streets in London or New York is not going to change any minds in Riyadh or Moscow.

And there is another point that I keep going on about, that 90% of those carbon emissions are "Scope 3," the downstream emissions from consumption. That's us putting it in our gas tanks and heating our houses and buying plastics and stuff made from steel and aluminum. It's all consumption. It's all us buying what they are selling. But we don't have to, and the world has changed to where it is a lot easier not to.

Not long ago, you couldn't heat your house without fossil fuels, directly with gas or indirectly with expensive coal-fired electricity. Now we have heat pumps being fed by electricity that is getting cleaner by the day as solar and wind power drop in price. We have induction stoves that cook better than gas. We have electric cars and an electric micromobility revolution. We have LEDs and CLTs and a million other acronyms for new technologies that reduce carbon emissions. We don't have to burn stuff to stay warm or cook our food. We don't have to buy what the fossil fuel producers are selling because we have options.

Jump shifts


I believe that we are also seeing a change in society to where people are thinking about their high-carbon lifestyles. They haven't all "taken the jump," but they are cutting back on consumption, biking more, and changing their diets. All of this leads to less consumption of fossil fuels and less buying of what they are selling.

This changes the equilibrium and reduces the power of these national entities and the countries behind them. David Fickling of Bloomberg makes many of the same points and writes that these producing countries and entities are losing their influence:

"The future that is crystallizing will be profoundly disruptive to the countries that are most dependent upon fossil-fuel exports—but it’s ultimately the consumers and importers who will decide which energy sources to lean on. Economics were already driving them relentlessly toward low-carbon alternatives. The war in Ukraine, and Russia’s attempt to wield energy exports as a weapon, have added a potent dash of national security to the mix."

COP27 failed because it required a consensus, and you are never going to get one. That's why I will repeat that the answer is to stop buying what they are selling, whether out of personal choice or because the options we have now are just better and cheaper and healthier and more fun. Fossil fuels are ultimately over when we don't need them anymore, and that is closer than we think.