It’s been remarked on already, but let’s repeat it: this autumn could define how the international community responds to climate change for the rest of the decade, and thereby determine the global pathway to net-zero and our ability to limit warming to 1.5C.

Let’s consider what will unfold over the next few months. On September 9-10 President Modi will host the G20 Leaders Summit in New Delhi; climate will assuredly be high up the agenda. Then later in the month, the UN Secretary-General will host his Climate Ambition Summit in New York: Guterres is terse in his instructions – don’t bother coming unless you will bring something new, tangible and credible to the table.

This will be followed in early October by an international climate and energy summit in Madrid on 2 October 2023 “focused on the urgency of accelerating the global clean energy transition”, co-hosted by the Spanish Vice-President and the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

These big meetings will be buttressed or handicapped (depending on your point of view) by a series of key reports addressing different aspects of the transition. Amongst other publications dropping in the autumn, the IEA will be updating its landmark 2021 Net-Zero 2050 Report; and the Stockholm Environment Institute will be publishing the first edition in two years of its Production Gap Report – in itself arguably the first public policy intervention on the fossil fuel supply-side agenda, putting it on the map in 2019.

After all that comes the big one: COP28 in Dubai, where – in plain sight – the COP President will for the first time also be the head of a major national oil company: Sultan Al Jaber, the Chair of the Abu Dhabi Oil Company (ADNOC). Each COP is becoming proportionately more important as the climate emergency becomes more urgent and acute. However, COP28 would seem to loom larger still: long singled out as a fundamental landmark in the timeline agreed in Paris in 2015, where there will be a report on the Global Stocktake (GST).

“Global Stocktake” is a wonky term, and UNFCCC language is often dry and technical. But the significance of the GST can’t be under-estimated, even in UN-speak. To quote verbatim from the UNFCCC website: “The global stocktake is a critical turning point when it comes to efforts to address climate change – it’s a moment to take a long, hard look at the state of our planet and chart a better course for the future. The global stocktake enables countries and other stakeholders to see where they’re collectively making progress toward meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement – and where they’re not. It’s like taking inventory. It means looking at everything related to where the world stands on climate action and support, identifying the gaps, and working together to agree on solutions pathways (to 2030 and beyond).”

Given what the climate scientists are telling us – most recently voiced, and more strongly than ever before in the IPCC’s March AR6 Synthesis Report, about the dangers of climate change and how a business-as-usual approach on fossil fuel production will in effect empty and overshoot the existing global carbon budget – the stakes are already high enough. But marry this with the Global Stocktake, a COP hosted by one of the largest oil and gas producing countries, and all the high-level political capital that will be invested this autumn, and it does feel like the “moment of truth” that the Director-General of IRENA has called it.

A Moment of Truth – but for Whom?

First and foremost, this is of course about the planet. COP President-designate Al Jaber has himself spoken about a “course correction” coming out of COP28 – and despite the fact that Al Jaber has a conflict of interest (and talking about the need to phase out fossil fuel “emissions, as he did at the recent Petersberg Climate Dialogue will not allay those concerns), he is right in highlighting that this COP has to determine a new course: one which creates more space in the global carbon budget and not less; and which arrests the rise in emissions through urgent climate action across the board.

But the importance of this COP in Dubai raises a second fundamental question – the future of the UNFCCC process itself. The UNFCCC Executive Director Simon Stiell, who was appointed only last year, has repeated the language of course correction. But he is also on record asking if the annual COP process needs a shake-up, and is focusing public attention on the Global Stocktake, and how an “implementation mindset” must be brought to it and provide the opportunity to do things differently.

Stiell’s emphasis here essentially encapsulates this existential challenge for the UNFCCC and for COP28. If it can’t use the Global Stocktake (the “critical turning point” it speaks of on its website) – when the climate scientists are literally screaming at us – to make a fundamental decision that business as usual on climate policy (which includes our ongoing usage of fossil fuels) is untenable, then what is it for?

The Battle for the Narrative

If those are the stakes, it sets the scene for how differing parties are going to be struggling over control of the climate and energy narrative as we count down to and through the crowded autumn. The reaction to Al Jaber’s comment about phasing out fossil fuel emissions provides a flavour of that. Moreover, it was made in the context of a speech which trotted out the consistent, vague and unaccountable line from the oil and gas industry: “fossil fuels will continue to play a role in the foreseeable future in helping meet global energy requirements…” etc, etc.

But this standard BAU line brings into sharper focus the debate about energy security and whether it needs redefining in a world where clean energy will be the future and is increasingly becoming the present. Within Carbon Tracker, we have started to use the term “energy security washing”, which we define as how many incumbent political and commercial interests are justifying the production of more oil, gas and coal. We would therefore argue that energy security in 2023 and beyond is best supported by low-cost, domestically generated renewables which are not subject to the type of political weaponization we have seen from Putin’s Russia.

We will see more of this narrative debate as the year unfolds, and it will be important to note which side of the line participants position themselves. Given Al Jaber’s day job as the Chair of ADNOC, the stance of national oil companies is likely to attract more attention, as it should.

Accelerating the Phase-out

But what can those who stand on the other side of the line bring to the party? One important element is the emergence of coalitions over the last couple of years who are advocating for a managed but accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels in line with the science. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, Powering Past Coal Alliance and Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative all fall into that camp. Full disclosure on this: we see Carbon Tracker’s Global Registry of Fossil Fuels as a key resource for these coalitions – and for other groups such as investors – who need to assess the risks of fossil fuel production to the carbon budget.

A key question for this range of groups is whether this autumn’s frenetic activity will give them further opportunity and evidence to dismantle the case of the “energy security washers”, and set out why a managed phase-out (not “overnight”, as some opponents often caricature it) is a way forward on climate and can support a fair and equitable transition for developing countries. The more progressive language that the European Union is using on fossil phase-out is encouraging. As a policy response to the Global Stocktake, they and others should now be thinking hard about they most effectively press for a roadmap to phase out fossil fuels in line with 1.5C and net-zero.

A Clean Energy OPEC?

But does more need to be done also to address the green side of the equation? In particular, is the case for the benefits of clean energy – the scaling-up of low-cost wind and solar, based on commercially proven technologies – one which not only needs to be made more strongly but be backed up by the imaginative use of money and policy which can facilitate and ease the transition for those in the Global South (who, in case we forget, are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change)?

Reform of how the World Bank approaches climate change and fossil fuels may help here – and next month’s summit in Paris exploring a New Financial Pact will hopefully start this process. But ideas about a “clean energy OPEC”, which for example Ed Miliband from the UK’s Labour opposition party has talked about, might also develop the positive case. This would bring together an alliance of countries focused on renewable energy which would further drive down the costs of low-carbon power globally in respect of both deployment and technology development. Kenya, which is on track to achieve 100% clean energy by 20230, is a potentially influential case study. Perhaps proponents could start advocating more vocally in the run-up to COP for a 2030 global clean energy target to help address the outcome of the Global Stocktake.

To return to where we started, the next seven months may be decisive. Those seeking the fundamental change of direction the planet needs will need to maximise the time and opportunities this crucial period will provide.