Kamala Harris’ Plan For International Climate Cooperation Could Smooth the Transition From Fossil Fuels
When news broke last week that the veepstakes was finally over and Kamala Harris would be joining Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, climate and energy experts scrambled to revisit the California senator’s “Climate Plan for the People,” first introduced as part of her campaign for the presidency last September.
In an electoral season saturated with detailed climate action plans and commitments from each of the Democratic presidential candidates, a number of groundbreaking initiatives were seemingly overlooked. This includes a bold proposal from Harris—which I first developed for the Global Climate Action Summit and later helped incorporate into her platform—to convene major emitters in 2021 and initiate the first-ever international coalition to manage the transition away from fossil fuel production – sometimes called “managed decline” — and the phaseout of industry subsidies.
With fresh attention—and buzz—around this proposal, a number of questions have emerged about how this could work.
Why Is a Coalition on Managed Decline Worth Exploring?
At present rates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, global mean temperatures will reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the 2040s. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C, the goal set in the Paris Agreement to avoid the worst effects of climate change, will require a rapid phaseout of net global carbon dioxide emissions and deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.
Figures vary, but according to a 2015 study in Nature, the GHG emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves equal three times the “carbon budget” that would limit warming to below 2°C. Almost 1.3 trillion barrels of oil, 192 trillion cubic meters of gas, 728 gigatons (Gt) of hard coal, and 276 Gt of lignite are classified as reserves globally. Burning these reserves could add up to 2,900 Gt of CO2 to the atmosphere.
The Nature report indicates that a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80 percent of current coal reserves globally would need to remain unused from 2010 to 2050 even to meet the less ambitious 2°C target. Significant new expenditure on fossil fuel exploration would be inconsistent with meeting this temperature limit.
Most jurisdictions’ climate measures to date have focused on driving down the demand for fossil fuels. However, a handful of jurisdictions and organizations have placed limits on the supply side—on the production of new fossil fuel resources:
- Belize has banned offshore oil and gas exploration in order to protect its coral reefs. Tourism generates almost $500 million a year for Belize, many times the current value of its national oil production.
- Costa Rica has a moratorium on fossil fuel exploration and exploitation that has been in place since 2012 and which remains in effect until 2021; in 2018, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada announced a plan to ban fossil fuels completely.
- Denmark announced in 2018 that it would no longer grant permits for exploration and drilling of oil, natural gas, and shale gas. This relates only to the country’s inland waters and not the North Sea, where essentially all of Denmark’s production currently takes place.
- France issued a ban on new licenses for oil and gas exploration in order to end all production by 2040. The ban covers mainland France and its territories, including French Guiana, where some offshore oil prospects have been discovered. However, the move was seen as largely symbolic, as France is primarily dependent on imported fossil fuels and generates most of its electricity from nuclear and hydropower. President Emmanuel Macron has also pledged to shut his country’s coal-fired power plants by 2021 and to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040.
- Ireland announced in 2019 that it would be ending offshore oil exploration, and in 2020 the new coalition government stated that it would also eliminate gas exploration.
- New Zealand announced in 2018 that it would ban offshore oil and gas exploration. The ban does not affect existing permits or onshore exploration.
- Quebec announced in 2018 that it would ban shale fracking and impose stricter rules on oil and gas exploration, extraction, and storage.
- The United States, under President Barack Obama, had designated areas in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans as “indefinitely off limits” to future oil and gas leasing. (Canada committed to a similar measure in its own Arctic waters at the same time.) However, President Donald Trump announced his intention to open these waters to drilling, and this week his administration finalized its plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
- The State of California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard is a significant but under-recognized supply-side measure that drives down the carbon intensity of fuels over time. In addition, the state’s Air Resources Board has resolved to “continue to evaluate and explore opportunities to achieve significant cuts in GHG emissions from all sources, including supply-side opportunities to reduce production of energy sources.”
- The World Bank announced at the One Planet Summit in 2017 that it would no longer fund new oil and gas exploration and extraction.
A number of organizations and jurisdictions are also working on proactive efforts to support the just transition of the fossil fuel industry workforce. (A ‘just transition’ means shifting away from fossil fuels and towards a carbon-free economy in a way that secures the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities.) For example, the International Trade Union Confederation is working on the transition of the fossil fuel industry workforce, and countries from Canada and Norway to Spain, New Zealand, and Germany have established a variety of government commissions and task forces to address the issue.
Many jurisdictions have faced pressure from activists to institute managed decline approaches individually. The fact is that without reductions in demand for oil, reducing supply in one jurisdiction will generally result in an increase in oil imports into that jurisdiction, filled by other oil-producing jurisdictions. If a state or country reduces or eliminates oil production on their own, it represents a wealth transfer from that jurisdiction’s workers, drivers, and businesses to other oil-producing regions. Short-term economic impacts could be large as fuel markets are disrupted and importing infrastructure is built, leading to increased price volatility. For these and many other reasons, building an international coalition of countries and other subnational jurisdictions willing to tackle managed decline and just transition collectively has the potential to be more impactful and effective globally.
How International Climate Change Coalitions Work
International cooperation on climate change is not limited to the Paris Agreement. There is a long-standing history of other multilateral and “minilateral” approaches to cooperation around climate change, both at the national and subnational levels. Past examples range from the Asia Pacific Partnership and Major Economies Forum, to the Clean Energy Ministerial and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.
More recently, the term “low carbon clubs” has been used to describe international cooperation among groups that are willing to lead on the transformation to a low carbon economy. These are not limited to country level participation—the Under2 Coalition, for example, was started by the State of California and a dozen other states and regions from around the world in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement, as both a backstop and an encouragement to national governments to adopt an ambitious outcome. Perhaps one of the most well-known and instrumental in the level of ambition reflected in the Paris Agreement—including the reference to 1.5°C—is the High Ambition Coalition, which was led by the Marshall Islands and which included the US and a number of other participants.
The 2018 Global Climate Action Summit, which I helped lead, generated a number of announcements from these types of low carbon clubs, from the Powering Past Coal Initiative, to the International Zero Emission Vehicle Alliance. Low carbon clubs have been particularly popular tools during the era of the Trump administration, allowing jurisdictions to continue to collaborate on key areas where progress can be made without having to bring the US along.
Generally, low carbon clubs are initiated by one or more countries or subnational jurisdictions that formulate the idea and take the lead in recruiting other participants. Often these clubs are created for announcement at a particular climate summit event and they are often organized around specific sectors or issues. Countries and jurisdictions may join for any number of reasons: because they want to show their commitment to climate change, because they have been invited by the host country (or another influential country), as part of a broader diplomatic engagement or calculus, due to pressure from civil society groups, etc. The benefits of joining may include access to resources, technical support, information, and/or funding; they might also include political benefits (if joining the club is seen positively by constituents).
Once a club is launched, it may make announcements at subsequent events about new jurisdictions that have joined or new levels of ambition that have been agreed upon and will be required by all participants. Early members of these clubs often have more opportunity to shape the nature of the club—once a critical mass of participants has joined, it becomes increasingly difficult to change the terms of the agreement. This structure is helpful because it makes it difficult for any one participant to push ambition levels down, lending itself toward stable or increasing levels of ambition. On the downside, there is generally little enforcement in low carbon clubs, but jurisdictions generally do not join unless they are fairly confident that their “domestic policy” will get them most or all of the way to compliance with the club’s participation requirements.
Launching an International Coalition on Managed Decline and Just Transition
The Harris “Climate Plan for the People” proposed convening major emitters in early 2021, focusing on climate change and the global economy — specifically “renewed commitments to fossil fuel subsidy phaseout and the first-ever global negotiation of the cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production.”
An international coalition on managed decline and just transition could be launched by a Biden/Harris administration at a 2021 summit in the form of a declaration to be signed by participating countries; participation could also involve states, regions, and cities. Some low carbon clubs also allow businesses to participate, and while it might be unlikely that any oil companies would join a coalition like this, it may be possible to secure participation—or some sort of separate, parallel commitment.
The declaration could include statements about:
- The reality of the climate science/requirements of significant reductions according to a 1.5°C IPCC scenario;
- The growing global trends towards low carbon growth, away from a fossil fuel–based economy, and the need to accelerate this trend;
- The need to begin planning now for workforce transitions to ensure that we take full advantage of and prepare for the shift to a low carbon future and reduce exposure of these communities to climate risk; and
- Benefits and opportunities for workers and the communities they live in to promote economic development/revitalization if just transitions are done correctly, including in the energy industry.
Governments could commit to:
- Developing a study and plan that outlines how their jurisdiction’s fossil fuel supply will be managed in alignment with a 1.5°C scenario; and
- Developing just transition plans for their workforces currently employed in the fossil fuel economy, and/or requiring all fossil fuel companies within their borders to develop just transition plans for their workforces.
To the extent that businesses are involved, they might commit to:
- Reporting on the emissions associated with their existing and potential resources;
- Developing a plan that is compliant with a 1.5°-C pathway; and
- Developing just transition plans for their workforces, in coordination with their respective governments.
Signatories could also commit to work together to share their approaches and best practices, and where appropriate pursue joint initiatives to further their objectives.
Potential participating governments might include those listed above that have already taken some steps toward charting a path forward on managed decline and just transition. The government of Norway would be a natural partner for the US to work with to lead this effort, given the historical significance of oil and gas in their economy and the leadership they have demonstrated in addressing emissions both at home and abroad. Costa Rica, France, and New Zealand are also natural partners, and allowing for the participation of subnational governments with significant fossil fuel reserves would create the opportunity for jurisdictions situated within countries that may not be able to commit nationally to nevertheless participate.
An international coalition on managed decline and just transition could ultimately function as an inverse OPEC. Rather than coordinating to stabilize oil markets, countries participating in this coalition would be collaborating to secure an equitable, efficient, just, and smooth transition from the energy sources of yesterday to those of the future. If we want to be able to transition away from fossil fuels at the pace and scale required to meet the climate challenge, while avoiding massive economic disruption and harm to the dignity and productivity of our workers, countries need clear plans on how to move toward a fossil fuel–free future and effective ways of cooperating and coordinating around this shared objective.
Aimee Barnes is a non-resident fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy. She has over 15 years of experience in climate, energy and sustainability, spanning the state, federal and international levels, and the public, private, and non-profit sectors.