Carbon emissions—and hence fossil fuel combustion—must decline rapidly if warming is to be held below 1.5 or 2 °C. Yet fossil fuels are so deeply entrenched in the broader economy that a rapid transition poses the challenge of significant transitional disruption.
Fossil fuels must be phased out even as access to energy services for basic needs and for economic development expands, particularly in developing countries. Nations, communities, and workers that are economically dependent on fossil fuel extraction will need to find a new foundation for livelihoods and revenue.
These challenges are surmountable. In principle, societies could undertake a decarbonization transition in which they anticipate the transitional disruption, and cooperate and contribute fairly to minimize and alleviate it. Indeed, if societies do not work to avoid that disruption, a decarbonization transition may not be possible at all. Too many people may conclude they will suffer undue hardship, and thus undermine the political consensus required to undertake an ambitious transition.
The principles and framework laid out here are offered as a contribution to understanding the nature of the potential impacts of a transition, principles for equitably sharing the costs of avoiding them, and guidance for prioritizing which fossil resources can still be extracted.