But having worked with both sides in several capacities, we believe there is at least a small chance that the gathering could arrive at a bold and novel Dubai Agreement that establishes a specific role for the fossil fuel enterprise and helps the world lower greenhouse gas emissions faster.
This agreement would not eliminate the fossil fuel industry, but it would bring an end to fossil fuel emissions. There need not be any contradiction here. After a transition period of a couple of decades, fossil fuel use would be permitted only where the carbon dioxide from that use does not end up in the atmosphere. Instead, the carbon dioxide from all remaining fossil fuel use would be captured and returned below ground or converted into durable products, creating a circular economy for carbon. This restricted fossil fuel system could be sustained throughout the second half of this century, helping to steepen the decline in global emissions as we build out renewable and other clean-energy systems. In fact, variants on such a system are envisioned in many of the global climate models that limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, as prescribed in the 2015 Paris agreement, and show a carbon dioxide storage enterprise at a scale of billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year throughout this century.
The Dubai Agreement we envision would require both sides to lean into a dramatic compromise about the future of fossil fuels, on behalf of a more coherent attack against climate change than is underway right now. It would lead to the end of gasoline-powered cars and natural gas for home heating and small factories; these uses would be powered instead by much-expanded zero-emissions electricity. But it would allow the continued use of fossil fuels at large energy and industrial sites, served by a new global carbon storage infrastructure resembling today’s national highway systems and electricity transmission networks. Regional systems of carbon dioxide pipelines and dedicated ships would connect thousands of carbon capture plants with hundreds of storage sites. This option has long been on the table, and several examples of full-scale projects are operating today. Such systems would need to be developed and operated to strict standards and tightly regulated to ensure that they are safe, environmentally sustainable and leak-free.
As is the case for wind and solar, subsidies would be essential to support this extensive carbon infrastructure. The subsidies in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, for example, are motivating immense investments in wind and solar power, and also creating profitable carbon capture projects at industrial facilities. But many environmentalists strongly oppose carbon capture, and these subsidies emerged only after tough bargaining.
Both the industry and the environmentalists have much to gain from our plan. Their united advocacy efforts could help bring about an unprecedented level of climate-policy bipartisanship that would catalyze genuine progress. Environmental leaders would appreciate the subsequent regulatory certainty that is so crucial to unlock the capital needed for the green investments they have worked so hard to promote. Oil and gas leaders would expect that their industry’s expertise in moving liquids and gases assures it a large role in developing and managing the new carbon infrastructure. And many of them would see the agreement as helping to assure their long-term license to operate — and softening the hostility from sustainability-focused investors. Both parties could also concede that the construction of carbon and renewables infrastructures side by side offers a more resilient path for accelerated decarbonization.
Many environmentalists would accept, reluctantly, that harnessing the prowess of the oil and gas industry in raising capital and implementing large projects would allow solar and wind power to expand more quickly. And many of them, we think, would look favorably on a well-coordinated build-out of the pipelines and storage sites required to isolate the carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels, because that same infrastructure could also be used to support “negative emissions” in which carbon dioxide is removed directly from the atmosphere — if that strategy proves desirable and feasible.
To reach such a Dubai Agreement will surely be a steep climb. Key environmental leaders would need to accept the continuing extraction of fossil fuels, under strict conditions. And key leaders of the oil and gas industry would need to promote an orderly phaseout of unabated uses of their product, starting immediately. They would launch a global effort to appraise the places underground where carbon dioxide can be stored safely and permanently, and they would work with governments to plan and build carbon dioxide pipeline systems. As stakeholders in the formulation of new policy, they would immediately cease lobbying against climate action and sign on to strong climate policies and regulations at all levels of government. To hold them to account, governments and civil society would mandate transparent and independent monitoring, verification and reporting.
To our knowledge, nothing like our proposal is currently on the agenda at COP28. But the right people will be in the rooms where it happens: diplomats from just about every nation of the world, leaders of most of the world’s oil companies and environmental organizations, and tens of thousands of representatives of “civil” society. At Dubai, a qualitatively stronger coalition committed to a low-carbon future could emerge. It would be a game changer.