Christiana Figueres speaks during the Web Summit conference

Global Optimism founding partner Christiana Figueres speaks during the annual Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal on November 6, 2019.

(Photo: Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Former UN Climate Chief Admits She Was Wrong That Fossil Fuel Industry Could Be an Ally

"The fossil fuel industry is facing decline, no matter what," said Christiana Figueres. "It is D-Day for them."

As the world endures record-shattering heat and other consequences of the global climate emergency, the United Nations' former climate chief admitted this week that she was wrong for believing the fossil fuel industry would be an authentic partner in helping to solve the planetary crisis.

The mea culpa from Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), came in the form of an Al Jazeera op-ed on Thursday.

"More than most members of the climate community, I have for years held space for the oil and gas industry to finally wake up and stand up to its critical responsibility in history," Figueres wrote. "I have done so because I was convinced the global economy could not be decarbonized without their constructive participation and I was therefore willing to support the transformation of their business model."

"But what the industry is doing with its unprecedented profits over the past 12 months has changed my mind," she explained in the wake of fossil fuel companies exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine to price gouge consumers and breaking records by raking in over $400 billion in profits last year.

"What the industry is doing with its unprecedented profits over the past 12 months has changed my mind."

The fossil fuel industry "could and should" be pouring its money into the global renewable energy transition, the former UNFCCC leader asserted.

Instead, she added, oil and gas giants are maintaining or even rolling back already-mediocre climate pledges, pursuing new polluting projects, fighting back against policies to promote more responsible investing, "paying higher dividends to shareholders, buying back more shares and—in some countries—lobbying governments to reverse clean energy policies while paying lip service to change."

After noting that "there are some exceptions to these sweeping generalizations" and executives questioned about the industry's failures "often cite some version of the prisoner's dilemma," Figueres declared: "Let's get real. We have reached the point where decarbonization will happen with the fossil fuel industry or without them."

"Exponential growth of renewables is the new reality," she wrote, citing reports from the International Energy Agency and Rocky Mountain Institute. "The fossil fuel industry is facing decline, no matter what. It is D-Day for them."

Now, according to Figueres, "the powerful state-owned companies as well as international firms have to decide whether they transition to the energies of the 21st century and thereby accelerate the exponential curve of the energy transition, or if their flame dies out while they remain blind and in pernicious resistance."

The column was welcomed by scientists, reporters, and campaigners around the world—many of whom have long highlighted the fossil fuel sector's fight against the swift transition experts say is necessary to prevent climate catastrophe and criticized leaders like Figueres for previously insisting on industry involvement.

With the article, Figueres "unleashes on fossil fuel firms, and rightly so," tweeted Bill Hare, CEO and senior scientist at the global institute Climate Analytics. "Shell, BP, Woodside, Total, Chevron, Santos, etc. are expanding gas/oil production when this should be reducing. They can only do this because they are enabled by compliant politicians."

Similarly praising her "brilliant piece... on the apathetic fossil fuel industry," Jack Bedford, climate adaptation officer at the U.K.'s Somerset Wildlife Trust, said that "if they're smart they'll fully switch to decarbonization. If not they'll get left behind in the renewable energy future, but could be such a dead weight they curse [the Earth,] leaving a hostile climate as their legacy."

Adam Currie, a climate justice campaigner in New Zealand, tweeted that "this is big from the former executive secretary of the UNFCCC; acknowledging it was a mistake to trust fossil fuel corporations to decarbonize voluntarily—the criminal actions of oil majors have changed her mind. It's not just activists; everyone is saying #KickPollutersOut."

Climate disinformation expert Genevieve Guenther, founding director of the U.S.-based group End Climate Silence and affiliate faculty at the New School, agreed.

"This is a huge deal coming from ⁦Christiana Figueres," Guenther said of her admission. "I hope other decision-makers will listen."

The column comes as the UNFCCC and world leaders prepare for COP28 in the United Arab Emirates later this year. The UAE has faced intense global criticism—including from Figueres, who led the Paris agreement negotiations—because Sultan Al Jaber, who heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is set to serve as the climate summit's president.

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