The 3 Myths Propping Up the Fossil Fuel Industry

6 minute read
Ani Dasgupta is president & CEO of World Resources Institute.

Fossil fuels contribute over 75% of global emissions. Every person at the COP28 climate change summit knows we need to rapidly slash the use of fossil fuels to keep global warming anywhere near the goal of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels determined in the Paris meetings of 2015.

Nevertheless, if just 20 of the world’s major fossil-fuel-producing countries stick to their current plans, they will combine to produce double the amount of fossil fuels than those goals allow. And that doesn’t account for the other 175 or so nations in the world. Meanwhile oil-and-gas companies are profiting more than ever, and investing billions annually to keep fossil fuels going.

The reason we are knowingly marching down a path of immense suffering and economic calamity is shockingly simple. The fossil fuel industry has propagated three myths designed to scare governments from doing the right thing—and so far, it has worked. Our leaders must call their bluff and strike a deal to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels.

The first myth: fossil fuels are essential to meet national energy security needs.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Europe scrambled to replace Russian gas with alternatives, which led to a brief global energy crisis. Energy security is a real concern—no one should accept a winter where people can’t heat their homes.

But renewable electricity, building efficiency, and clean transportation can do far more for countries’ energy security than fossil fuels. In fact, energy security has been a driving force for several countries—such as Denmark, Namibia, and Uruguay—to rapidly grow solar and wind to reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Renewable energy can be locally produced anywhere, decreasing dependency on imported fuels that are concentrated in a few countries. (Indeed, just 10 countries produce 75% of the world’s oil, and Russia is number three on the overall list.) Further, producing more fossil fuels does not make countries more energy secure; because oil and gas are globally traded, they will always be subject to volatile prices.  

The second myth: without more oil and gas, we can never meet the world’s growing energy demand.

The world’s energy needs will rise by 50% by 2050, as the population grows and more people enter the middle class. That is a good thing—760 million people still don’t have access to reliable electricity today, mostly in Africa and Asia—as long as fossil fuels are not the path we take to meeting this demand.

The good news is that even with population growth and higher incomes, credible projections show there is no need for new oil and gas. Fossil fuels keep growing because governments and banks keep investing in them, even when alternatives exist—governments spent a record $1.3 trillion subsidizing fossil fuels last year, on top of another $1 trillion in private investment. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if this $2.3 trillion was invested in supporting renewable energy it could meet the growing electricity demand.

Governments should start by redirecting subsidies toward clean energy solutions. For example, heat pumps can heat and cool homes and businesses with 50% less energy, reducing demand for fossil fuels. Europe proved this last year, as it cut gas demand by a year-over-year record of 13%, in part by installing 3 million heat pumps and by adding record amounts of wind and solar.

The third myth: carbon-capture technology will make fossil fuels emission-free.

Fossil fuels annually produce 37 gigatons of carbon emissions today; the International Energy Agency says we must cut that by 15 gigatons by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C goal—and also says carbon capture technology will only capture 1 gigaton annually by 2030. Projections show carbon capture will be needed to reduce emissions from heavy industries, but overall it will play only a niche role alongside the primary climate solutions: energy efficiency, clean energy, and electrification.

What comes next?

Make no mistake: getting off fossil fuels will not be easy. And it will not happen overnight. Fossil fuels still account for the vast majority of the world’s energy. The jobs of millions depend on them, as do the economies of many countries around the world. And the fossil fuel industry controls vast resources and are very influential.

Yet cost-effective clean energy solutions exist today, and there’s massive momentum behind them, with over 110 countries committing to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030.

Now countries need to make a decisive political commitment at the COP28 summit to rapidly and equitably shift away from fossil fuels this decade. This will provide the much-needed trust for each country to go home and devise its own plan, in line with its own needs.

Rich countries must lead, going further and faster than poorer countries. They should start with three critical actions.

First, richer oil-and-gas producing countries should start at home with the most obvious solution: stop approving new oil and gas projectsResearch shows the world can’t stay within safe climate limits otherwise.

Second, all countries must develop stronger policies and regulations to reduce fossil fuel use and encourage clean energy, with 2030 targets. They cannot rely on voluntary action from oil-and-gas companies. And they must support fossil-fuel workers, providing re-training and compensation packages to ensure they can take advantage of the 14 million new clean energy jobs that the IEA projects to be available by 2050.

Third, rich countries must financially support developing countries in this transition, as they committed to in the Paris Agreement. They should deliver significantly more finance to help countries rapidly shift off fossil fuels, and spur wider financial reforms that lower the cost of investing in new renewable energy in poorer countries.

There is no more time for false narratives. Our governments must deliver a transformational outcome at this summit that shows countries can still come together for the common good. Let this be the moment where we look back and say: the fossil-fuel era ended on our watch.

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