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Equity Considerations in Fossil Fuel Phase Out

Equity considerations form an important part of climate policy, especially the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, enshrined in the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Principles of equity, justice and fairness have also been discussed by political philosophers and by climate justice advocates.  

With respect to supply-side policies, numerous experts have considered how equity impacts the location, timing and justifications for supply-side policies across the world (see also our category page on Regional Distribution of Production). 

Lenferna (2018) recognises the emerging consensus amongst climate justice advocates and researchers, that those who have benefitted most from fossil fuels and who have the greatest capabilities to transition away from them should take the lead in ending fossil fuel extraction. Similarly, Kartha et al (2018) and CSO’s Equity Review (2021) suggest that high-income countries must take the lead and bear greater responsibilities for implementing supply-side policies. CSO’s Equity Review (2021) recommends that wealthy countries must cease financing fossil fuels. Le Billon and Kristoffersen (2020) similarly consider that a coalition of willing participants should take the lead in rejecting fossil fuel projects, starting with those who produce the most fossil fuels, and with the most carbon-intensive fuels and the costliest fuels, followed by those who can afford to transition. Muttitt and Kartha (2020) further suggest that extraction should be reduced fastest where the social costs of transition are minimal (i.e. in countries with low dependence and a high capacity for transition). Calverley and Anderson (2022) highlight that all countries need to phase out oil and gas rapidly, and due to the shrinking carbon budget, lower income countries have longer albeit not a significant amount of additional time to reduce fossil fuel production i.e. by 2050. 

Whereas much of the literature argues for an equitable distribution of fossil fuel supply in favour of developing countries, Pye et al (2020) find that such a strategy conflicts with cost-effectiveness considerations in many cases, which also has implications for fossil fuel consumers in developing countries (there are exceptions, however, such as Canadian oil sands: see Lenferna (2018)). Moreover, arguments for redistribution of fossil fuel supply (e.g., by Kartha et al (2018) and Armstrong (2020)) tend to assume that poorer countries forego development opportunities by leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground. However, Pye et al (2020) question this assumption, noting that not all countries with fossil fuel reserves have achieved high levels of development, and in many cases development goals have been hampered by fossil fuel dependency, as attested by the literature on the resource curse.1  

This does not mean that equity considerations as such have no role to play in supply-side policy. Kartha et al (2018) and Pye et al (2020) agree that equitable supply-side policies should reduce extraction in a way that distributes the costs of policies fairly. CSO’s Equity Review (2021) and Muttitt and Kartha (2020) also suggest that policies to reduce production in communities that suffer harm from extraction activities should be prioritised.  

Furthermore, Lenferna (2018), Pye et al (2020) and CSO’s Equity Review (2021) all consider the importance of providing development assistance to help poorer countries with their transition away from fossil fuels. Armstrong (2020) suggests that development assistance should be provided through structural reform, e.g., by removing trade barriers for poorer countries and allowing them to gain competitive access to more markets.  

Rempel and Gupta (2021) analyse specific approaches to leaving fossil fuels in the ground, evaluating each approach on the basis of equity (amongst other criteria). 


1 See, e.g., Michael L. Ross, “What Have We Learned about the Resource Curse?,” Annual Review of Political Science 18 (2015): 239–59.

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