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Fossil Fuels Phase-Out: Policy Framework Proposed

From the desk of TLI Ecosphere Studies Research Fellow, and author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can.

Fossil Fuels Phase-Out: Policy Framework Proposed for Doing it Quickly and Safely

A “managed phase out” of fossil fuels is increasingly called for in climate policy studies and congressional resolutions, as being necessary for a solution to the climate emergency. But the statements are usually highly generalized.

An article just published in the ecological journal Solutions proposes a specific national-level policy framework for rapidly eliminating fossil fuels. It is designed to be failsafe both for accomplishing that goal and for ensuring fairness and sufficiency throughout society.

The policy, called “Cap and Adapt,” has three parts which together address both the supply and demand sides of the CO2 emissions problem, an approach economists have called “cutting with both sides of the scissors.”

“Cap and Adapt policy begins with a permit-enforced cap on the quantity of fossils fuels a company is allowed to extract from the ground or import,” said Stan Cox, one of the authors. “Each company’s allowed production quantity will fall every year, by a fixed percentage of its quantities of extraction or imports of fossil fuels in the policy’s baseline year.”

The annual percentage reduction, to be set in the originating legislation, will apply nationwide. It will be the same each year, and will be the same for every fossil fuel producer regardless of the kind of fuel. This will result in the amount of fuel entering the economy becoming nil by the specified year, affecting all fuel types equally.

“This makes sense, because a rapid elimination of fossil energy is necessary,” said Larry Edwards, the lead author.

“The metric for permits will be barrels, tons or cubic feet depending on the kind fuel,” he said. “Because the purpose is to quickly eliminate fossil fuels on the fastest schedule legislators can be persuaded to accept – ideally in 10 or 15 years – favoring one fuel over another would be ineffective, and counting production is much simpler and more transparent than counting carbon.”

Once adopted, the cap is inherently failsafe for eliminating fossil fuel CO2 emissions, provided it is administered as intended and not legislatively repealed.

The other two parts of the policy adapt the economy and society to the falling availability of fossil fuels. In doing so, they secondarily help protect the cap from political assault.

One adaptive feature is a just energy transition as envisioned in the Green New Deal. It will construct more renewable electricity, shift users of fossil energy to electricity or solar heat, make uses of energy more efficient, reduce energy demand, and ensure a fair transition for fossil industry workers and frontline communities.

The other adaptive feature is a standby rationing program for fossil fuels (primarily) and if necessary other energy. It will be activated only when and to the degree necessary if the Green New Deal part of the policy does not keep pace with the cap’s reduced availability of fossil fuels.

“The purpose of rationing is to ensure fairness in a time of shortage, and that at least all basic needs are met,” said Cox. “Some technology advocates believe building renewable energy
infrastructure can keep pace with a needed deliberate phase-out of fossil fuels. But other
experts project that it cannot.  But other experts project that it cannot. A rationing program standing by will be vital insurance, to guarantee fair shares of energy to everyone.”

The Green New Deal is a widely recognized expression of hope for confronting the climate emergency. “Unfortunately, the Green New Deal has no provision for ensuring performance,” said Edwards. The “Cap and Adapt” framework centers  the GND between the two other policy features, creating a complete and effective policy package that we believe is as failsafe as possible for protecting the climate, the economy, and everyone.”

The authors acknowledge that their proposal sets a high, politically difficult bar that will be hard to clear. They see little choice but to try, and are hopeful that their article will lead to discussion and at least help move the goal posts of what is politically possible.

“At the international level, effective climate policy has been elusive because major emitting nations are dragging their feet,” said Edwards. “What’s needed is for one major emitting nation to adopt truly adequate policy like Cap and Adapt, opening the door for other nations to follow suit. One nation, or better yet a few, has to break the international stalemate.”


Larry Edwards is an engineer and environmental consultant in Sitka, Alaska.

Stan Cox is a research scholar at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His most recent book is “The Green New Deal and BeyondEnding the Climate Emergency While We Still Can”  (City Lights, 2020)


The article:  Edwards, L. & Cox, S. (2020), “Cap and Adapt: Failsafe Policy for the Climate Emergency”. The Solution Journal. 11(3).  Sept. 2020.


References (for the above hyperlinks):

Green, F & Denniss, R. (2018). Cutting with both arms of the scissors: The economic and political case for restrictive supply-side climate policies. Climatic Change 150, 73-87.

Griffith, S (2020). Rewiring America. (120pp report).

Jacobson, MZ, Delucchi, MA, Cameron, MA & Frew, BA (2015). Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, 15060-15065 (2015).

Manji, R. A (2008). Proposal for controlling global greenhouse gas emissions. IEMA’s The Environmentalist (Issue 64, 22 Sep. 2008).  (N.B.: Discontinued journal, and there was also a different journal of the same name.)

Muttitt, G & Kartha, S (2020). Equity, climate justice and fossil fuel extraction: principles for a managed phase out. Climate Policy 2020:1-19. (Authors are at Oil Change Int’l and SEI.)

Rosenbloom, D & Rinscheid, A (2020), Deliberate decline: An emerging frontier for the study and

practice of decarbonization. WIREs Climate Change: 2020;e669.

  1. Con. Res. 22 & H. CON. RES. 52 & (2019). Bills “Expressing the Sense Of Congress that There Is A Climate Emergency Which Demands a Massive-Scale Mobilization to Halt, Reverse, and Address Its Consequences and Causes”. Introduced. by Sen. Sanders & Rep. Blumenaur.
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