The Green Transition Will Collapse Without Oil

The Green Transition Will Collapse Without Oil

The global transition to green energy might well be “unstoppable,” but it cannot be achieved without the participation of major hydrocarbon producers.

 

The global transition to green energy might well be “unstoppable,” in the words of the International Energy Agency (IEA)—but like it or not, it cannot be achieved without the participation of major hydrocarbon producers. 

In the run-up to COP28, the upcoming United Nations climate summit controversially hosted this year by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the world has become ferociously polarized between those demanding and resisting a rapid “phaseout” of fossil fuels. 

 

It’s a debate whose toxicity threatens to derail a global climate agreement. That’s why decisionmakers must move beyond the simplistic belief that fossil fuel production and renewable energy are mutually exclusive. 

While green activists have lambasted the UAE’s COP28 presidency (the country is the seventh-largest oil producer), they have overlooked fundamental challenges that ultimately require leadership from oil-producing countries and companies.

On the one hand, most of the world’s oil producers are deeply unprepared for the IEA’s forecast that demand for oil, gas, and coal will peak by 2030 before an irreversible decline, even without “green” policies. 

The driving dynamic of this shift is not environmental advocacy—it’s simple economics. Just weeks ago, a team of forecasters at the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute published a landmark paper concluding that solar power will “dominate” the global electricity system by 2050 due to declining costs and improving performance.

Polarization between green activists and fossil fuel producers has blinded both from recognizing how consequentially this transition will upend the postwar world order, premised largely on the production and distribution of fossil fuels. 

In a global economy where oil, gas, and coal still provide 80 percent of global energy, the coming shift toward a new global energy system dominated by renewables over the next three decades poses an existential risk not just to the world’s ninety-eight oil-producing countries—most of whom are middle-income developing nations—but also to many oil-importing countries, who remain laggards in the energy transition due to lack of funds, infrastructure, and expertise. 

That’s why the COP28 presidency’s insistence at a major oil and gas conference in Abu Dhabi last October that oil and gas firms must prepare for the phase-down of fossil fuels is crucial. We can’t just sit back and hope for the best. This transition could result in social dislocation and geopolitical chaos on a vast scale if mismanaged.

What happens to millions of oil workers as the industries they depend on for their livelihoods enter their twilight? What happens to oil and gas producers in the most volatile regions of the world, whose stability is structurally bound up with exporting cheap fossil fuels? If the “phase out” of fossil fuels happens as quickly as some green activists demand, before a new system is in place, the resulting economic disaster will evaporate the capital needed for the green transition. 

Which means oil is far from dead just yet. As bullish as they are, the IEA’s scenarios still see oil accounting for 73 percent of global energy consumption in 2030 and declining very slowly for decades to come. This is why COP28’s president, Sultan Al Jaber—CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company—has warned that because we can’t just switch off oil, we must capture as much emissions as possible.

As oil and gas are gradually displaced, the reshaping of regional and international geopolitics will undermine those countries that ignore the transition. The UAE has taken a different approach by trying to get ahead of it. 

To be sure, that path started long before it took on the COP28 presidency. In 2016, the UAE became the world’s first oil-producing nation to hold a high-level “Post-Oil Retreat” attended by senior Emirati government officials and royal family members. This led the government to adopt an official national post-oil strategy. The UAE’s state renewable energy company, Masdar, has grown rapidly since then, becoming the largest renewable operator in Africa this year. 

Other oil-producing nations—not least of all the United States—may want to follow this example. But green activists should pay heed: Russia’s war in Ukraine showed that even a modest energy shortfall creates intolerable economic conditions. While the green energy transition is still unfolding, governments need to urgently diversify sources of hydrocarbons, especially to shift away from coal to cleaner forms of gas, while ramping up carbon capture. 

This isn’t going to happen by treating oil as the enemy. Climate activists, renewable entrepreneurs, and fossil fuel producers must work together to manage the coming transition effectively. 

Kamran Bokhari is the Senior Director of Eurasian Security and Prosperity at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on X at @KamranBokhari.

Image: Shutterstock.