Share to raise climate awareness

Countries like Canada which claim to be climate leaders cannot avoid planning for a managed decline of fossil fuels. But Canada is doing just the opposite by allowing for the ongoing expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and production.

We at Below2°C are pleased to welcome Hannah McKinnon as a guest contributor. Hannah’s expertise and experience with climate policy and energy issues provide a front-line perspective in the battle against climate change. This article was first appeared in Oil Change International and is republished in Below2°C with her permission.

The Managed Decline Of Fossil Fuels

It is clear that the end of the fossil fuel era is on the horizon. Between plummeting renewable energy costs, uncharted electric vehicle growth, government commitments to decarbonization enshrined in the Paris agreement, and a growing list of fossil fuel project cancellations in the face of massive public opposition and bad economics, the writing’s on the wall.

The question now becomes: What does the path from here to zero carbon look like? Is it ambitious enough to avoid locking in emissions that we can’t afford? Is it intentional enough to protect workers and communities that depend on the carbon-based economy that has gotten us this far? Is it equitable enough to recognize that some countries must move further, faster? And is it honest enough about the reality that a decline of fossil fuels is actually a good thing?

What is the Plan

[The question is simple]. Will this be a managed decline of fossil fuel production, or an unmanaged decline?

Is the plan ambitious: Is it fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change?

The Managed Decline Of Fossil Fuels, Below2C

Figure 1 shows the trajectories of decarbonization necessary in for 2-degree Celsius (blue) and 1.5-degree Celsius (red) pathways. The black line is the trajectory oil and gas production would follow if we stopped exploring for and developing new fossil fuel reserves today. The orange line is what is actually on the books when you add up what industry thinks they can extract. The difference is stark. Even as renewables take off, every year more and more of that unburnable carbon is being locked into production. The picture is much the same for coal.

Without efforts to limit this production growth, a variation on one of two themes will unfold: 1. We will miss climate limits and global climate change will be catastrophic, or 2. A much more dramatic future halt and decline of production will be significantly more economically and socially disruptive.

It seems clear that managed >> unmanaged. Why wouldn’t you prepare to ensure the decline is as non-disruptive as possible, but also fast enough to avoid the worst climate impacts?

Is the plan fair: Does it prepare for a just transition that will protect workers and put communities first?

Speed and ambition is paramount: As the International Trade Union Confederation grimly puts it, there are no jobs on a dead planet. But a key element of a managed decline is that it must come hand-in-hand with a just transition for jobs and communities that have become dependant on the production of fossil fuels.

Everyone can recognize the role fossil fuels have played in the development of the global economy, and everyone should recognize the workers and communities that have made these sectors thrive and provided the world with energy. A critical part of this transition is acknowledging that those workers and communities require and deserve support as their livelihoods change.

Trade unions and others have developed a framework for a just transition in relation to climate change, the importance of which is recognized in the preamble of the Paris Agreement. Key elements of a just transition include:

  • Sound investments in low-emission and job-rich sectors and technologies;
  • Social dialogue and democratic consultation of social partners – trade unions and employers – and other stakeholders, such as communities;
  • Research and early assessment of the social and employment impacts of climate policies;
  • Training and skills development to support the deployment of new technologies and foster industrial change;
  • Social protection alongside active labor market policies; and
  • Local economic diversification plans that support decent work and provide community stability in the transition.

It is also important to note that the fossil fuel economy, while a massive employer, is not always a good employer. Workers and communities have oftentimes been taken advantage of in the boom and abandoned in the bust. We need a transition plan that will not just create new jobs, but that will create good new jobs.

Fossil fuel extraction has impacted tens of thousands of communities around the world, and more often than not, it is marginalized populations that bear the brunt of the impacts of living and working on the frontlines of the fossil fuel economy. From chronic health problems, to irreparable local environments, to political oppression and more, these communities must finally have the agency they deserve over the future of their lives and livelihoods.

A just and managed transition will build support, not resistence, and it will do so by ensuring that those affected are meaningfully engaged from day one.

Is the plan equitable: Does it recognize that some countries need to move further, faster?

One other thing if you look closely at Figure 1 is that although the black line is much closer to the trajectory we need to be on, there is some production that will need to be retired early to stay within any reasonable climate limits. This is also clear in Figure 2 below (from The Sky’s Limit), which shows a good deal of carbon in already-producing reserves that we can’t afford to extract and burn in safer climate scenarios.

The Managed Decline Of Fossil Fuels, Below2C

While all countries will need to undergo a managed decline of their fossil fuel sectors, the poorest nations will need significant support, including being allowed to burn their fair share of the global carbon budget to aid in the transition.

Conversely, wealthy, developed fossil fuel producers that have benefitted from fossil fuel production for decades have an obligation to prove it is possible to transition an economy off of fossil fuels (see the Lofoten Declaration for more on this). After all – if countries like Norway, Canada, or Germany can’t do it, who can?

Does the plan recognize that markets alone won’t cut it? We need leadership and action to get us where we need to go.

Clean and renewable energy solutions are imperative, but as the lock-in case above shows us, markets alone won’t do the trick even if the alternatives to fossil fuels are setting records. Fossil fuels are entrenched in our society and they have the status quo momentum that will require leadership and action to stop.

Figure 3 below, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2017 New Energy Outlook, provides another illustration of why technology is key, but won’t get us far enough, fast enough. Even the renewable energy optimists (among which we count ourselves) recognize that leaps and bounds in clean energy aren’t enough if there is a failure to limit fossil fuel production.

The Managed Decline Of Fossil Fuels, Below2C

We can celebrate the extraordinary growth of renewable energy solutions, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the other half of the equation. We need to sunset the fossil fuel sector, and to suggest otherwise is deceptive and dangerous. Within this, we need a just transition and a managed decline, and we need them to start now. We can both recognize the critical role fossil fuels have played in the development of society as we know it, and recognize that now we know better and it is time to move on.

The principles

Let me finish with what I see as the principles that will be critical as we move into the next decade of climate action:

  • Fossil fuel production decline is necessary and urgent
  • Managed decline >> unmanaged decline
  • Just transition and equity are critical
  • Frontlines and impacted communities are central

We must leapfrog any continued discussion about “if,” and let the science tell us “when” (start immediately) and “what” (phase out fossil fuels completely within 25 to 50 years). The important discussions we can then focus on are “how” and “who decides”.

“Managed decline” is a phrase that makes certain people nervous: Declines are “politically toxic,” and decision makers want to be able to talk about growth, not decline. But that is missing a critical point: Decline of a bad thing is good. A decline in asbestos, a decline in ozone-depleting chemicals, a decline in lead-based paint, a decline in coal. All of these are things that were useful to humanity until we learned how dangerous they were. And then their decline became the priority it needed to be, and by-in-large, rational people have been happy to see them go. It is also honest; fossil fuels will decline and a good plan is clear about its goals.

To make this work, we need first movers. We need governments that understand the urgency of climate action and have the means to act to do so, boldly. The auto industry proves instructive: After a few first movers laid down markers, the electric vehicle market is no longer niche. Recognizing that there is no other future, incumbents are tripping over themselves to come up with the plan that will keep them in the game. Governments everywhere should take note – or they, and their citizens, will find themselves wondering why they were so determined to be the last ones standing in an obsolete economy.

This article was first published in Oil Change International by Hannah McKinnon. She has followed with two articles that show how Germany’s apparent climate leadership is tainted by the burning of massive amounts of coal.

Related Articles:
Time to Stop Digging: Why Germany’s Climate Leadership Requires a Rapid Phaseout of Fossil Fuel Production and Finance

Germany must quit fossil fuels to regain climate leadership: new report
If You’re In A Hole, Just Stop Digging

Share to raise climate awareness


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the author that we need a phased reduction of GHG sources. What we lack so far is a method for implementing this reduction.

    My calculations with 2013 world output data show that the world needed a reduction of 1.6 %/year of its then-current CO2 output and of each of the other greenhouse gases (GHG) in order not to exceed +2.00 C. For +1.50 C it would be 3 %/year. This same GHG reduction figure would apply to every country relative to its own 2013 output, and then (at least theoretically) to every individual. It also applies to any major source of GHG, such as a coal power plant and the tar sands. Zero world GHG output for the +2.00 limit would be reached in 63 years from 2013, i.e. in 2076.

    So here is the recipe: The operation (the power plant or the tar sands or any other major GHG source) can operate with the constraint that it reduce each of its GHG outputs by at least 1.6 %/year relative to its GHG outputs at the starting year, here 2013. For any other starting year, say 2020, the %/year reduction numbers would have to be re-calculated, and would of course be higher.

    This %/year GHG reduction procedure has the advantage that it gives a reasonable time frame for owners, employees and communities to adjust to this ever reducing GHG output, rather than saying: “Leave it in the ground!” Penalties would have to be applied for noncompliance.

    The major difficulty with this approach is that the whole world would have to agree for it to be successful. In other words, a successor to the 2015 Paris accord is needed, based on the worldwide adoption of the %/year GHG reduction program – and the sooner the better!

    • Thank you for your comments Hans. And welcome to Below2C.

      Some 25,000 participants just completed two weeks of climate talks in Bonn – COP23. Progress is slow and most certainly not keeping up to the widening gap between the type of climate action that is needed and the accelerating warming of the planet.

      I like what you’re proposing. It excels by its simplicity and and its fairness. As you point out, it would require widespread support from the world community and therein lies the challenge. The Paris Agreement was adopted in December of 2015. Now two years later we are still discussing the rule book required for its implementation going forward. That rule book is to be completed in 2018. Then will come the review of current targets to determine their adequacy or inadequacy for reaching 2030 targets submitted by the signatories to the Agreement.

      We have a long way to go, a very long way to go.

  2. Surely the challenge is far greater than planning “a managed decline of fossil fuel production.”?
    Our unregulated capitalist system of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is driving the increase of fossil fuel emissions beyond the planet’s ecological limits.
    Reforming capitalism must go hand in hand with any plan to manage the decline of fossil fuels.

    • Thank you for your comments.

      The managed decline of fossil fuels is but one of the ways of getting to a zero-carbon future. And of course we will need many more tools in the climate policy toolbox. As you point out, as long as we remain fixated on a mass-consumerism society that knows no bounds, we will not change the climate trajectory we are on. This will not end well unless we began to live according to the earth’s ecological capacity.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here