UN: Study shows fossil fuel extraction plans would far exceed climate limits

Report shows governments intend to produce over double the amount of fuels by 2030 than allowed under Paris pact to keep global temp increase under 1.5°C by end of the century

Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets, near Emmett, Kansas, United States, September 18, 2021. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets, near Emmett, Kansas, United States, September 18, 2021. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

LONDON — The world needs to cut its production of coal, oil and gas by more than half in the coming decade to maintain a chance of keeping global warming from reaching dangerous levels, according to a United Nations-backed study released Wednesday.

The report published by the UN Environment Program found that while governments have made ambitious pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions, they are still planning to extract double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with the 2015 Paris climate accord’s goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Even the less ambitious goal of capping global warming at 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times would be overshot, it said.

Climate experts say the world must stop adding to the total amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by 2050, and that can only be done by drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible, among other measures.

“The research is clear: global coal, oil and gas production must start declining immediately and steeply to be consistent with limiting long-term warming to 1.5°C,” said Ploy Achakulwisut, a lead report author from the Stockholm Environment Institute.

“However, governments continue to plan for and support levels of fossil fuel production that are vastly in excess of what we can safely burn.”

With 1.1°C of warming so far, Earth is being pummeled by ever-more-frequent drought, floods and storms supercharged by rising sea levels.

The report, which was released days before a UN climate summit begins October 31 in Glasgow, found most major oil and gas producers — and even some major coal producers — are planning on increasing production until 2030 or even beyond.

It showed that governments planned to produce around 240 percent more coal by 2030 than the 1.5°C goal allows. They also plan for 57 percent more oil and 71 percent more natural gas, the report said.

It also concluded that the group of 20 major industrialized and emerging economies have invested more into new fossil fuel projects than into clean energy since the start of 2020.

The disparity between climate goals and fossil fuel extraction plans — termed the “production gap” — will widen until at least 2040, the report found.

This would require increasingly steep and extreme measures to meet the Paris emissions goal, UNEP said.

“There is still time to limit long-term warming to 1.5°C, but this window of opportunity is rapidly closing,” said the agency’s executive director, Inger Andersen, adding that governments should commit to closing the gap at the Glasgow climate summit.

A view of a pump jack operating in an oil field in Midland, Texas, July 29, 2020. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The report, which had more than 40 researchers contributing, examined 15 major fossil fuel-producing countries.

For the United States, they found that government projections show oil and gas production increasing to 17% and 12%, respectively, by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. Much of that would be exported, meaning the emissions from burning those fossil fuels would not show up in the US inventory although they would add to the global total.

US coal production is projected to decline by 30% over the coming decade compared to 2019.

Costa Rica’s environment and energy minister said the report shows the need to stop extracting fossil fuels to meet the Paris goals.

“We must cut with both hands of the scissors, addressing demand and supply of fossil fuels simultaneously,” Andrea Meza said.

Costa Rica and Denmark are planning to launch a new group at the Glasgow summit, the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, to promote that effort.

‘Major mismatch’

The 2015 Paris deal saw countries commit to limiting warming to between 1.5°C and 2°C through sweeping emissions cuts.

Under the deal, every signatory must submit renewed emissions-cutting plans — known as National Determined Contributions, or NDCs — every five years.

In an assessment last month the UN said that, taken together, countries’ latest NDCs — assuming they are fulfilled — put Earth on course to reach a “catastrophic” 2.7°C of warming by 2100.

The organizers of COP26, which starts in Glasgow on October 31, say they want the summit to keep the 1.5°C temperature goal within reach.

Screen capture from video of Andrea Meza Murillo, Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy. (YouTube)

Michael Lazarus, a co-author of Wednesday’s report, said the difference between countries’ NDCs and production plans was “the major mismatch” in climate diplomacy right now.

“Even in the face of inevitable decarbonization away from fossil fuels, some countries are speeding up their investments in activities to promote fossil fuel production, vowing to remain the last ones standing,” he said.

Last week the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that the use of coal — the most polluting fossil fuel — had in fact increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May it said that no new oil and gas production was compatible with 1.5°C.

In order to achieve carbon neutrality and avoid blowing past the 1.5°C goal, Lazarus said that “we don’t need production in new fields at this point.”

“Countries need to acknowledge the need for a just and equitable transition and report on how their production plans align with their climate plans,” he said.

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