The world’s nations are on track to produce more than twice as much coal, oil and gas as can be burned in 2030 while restricting rise in the global temperature to 1.5C, analysis shows.
The report is the first to compare countries’ stated plans for fossil fuel extraction with the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which is to keep global heating well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, and to aim for 1.5C. It exposes a huge gap, with fossil fuel production in 2030 heading for 50% more than is consistent with 2C, and 120% more than that for 1.5C.
Scientists have warned that even the difference between 1.5C and 2C of heating will expose hundreds of millions of people to significantly higher risks of extreme heatwaves, drought, floods and poverty.
The report was produced by the UN Environment Programme and a coalition of research organisations. It complements an earlier UN analysis showing the current Paris agreement pledges to cut emissions would still lead to a catastrophic 3-4C rise.
“We’re in a deep hole – and we need to stop digging,” said Måns Nilsson, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), which was part of the analysis. “Despite more than two decades of climate policymaking, fossil fuel production levels are higher than ever.”
Most action to tackle the climate crisis involves reducing emissions, but Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme, said a focus on fossil fuel production was long overdue. Most of the action pledges made by countries under the Paris deal do not even mention changes to production.
The UK is a “striking” example of this mismatch, said Cleo Verkuijl, at the SEI’s centre in Oxford, UK. It was the first major economy to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, she said, but also subsidises fossil fuel production at home and abroad and intends to extract “every drop of oil and gas” from its North Sea fields. In recent years, the UK oil and gas industry has received £176m more annually in government support than it paid in taxes, the report said.
The Committee on Climate Change says cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 is necessary, affordable and desirable. Here are some of the actions needed to make that happen:
• Petrol and diesel cars banned from sale ideally by 2030 and 2035 at the latest.
• Quadrupling clean electricity production from wind, solar and perhaps nuclear, plus batteries to store it and connections to Europe to share the load.
• Connection of new homes to the gas grid ending in 2025, with boilers using clean hydrogen or replaced by electric powered heat pumps. Plus, all homes and appliances being highly efficient.
• Beef, lamb and dairy consumption falling by 20%, though this is far lower than other studies recommend and a bigger shift to plant-based diets would make meeting the zero target easier.
• A fifth of all farmland – 15% of the UK – being converted to tree planting and growing biofuel crops and restoration of peat bogs. This is vital to take CO2 out of the air to balance unavoidable emissions from cattle and planes.
• 1.5bn new trees will be needed, meaning more than 150 football pitches a day of new forests from now to 2050.
• Flying would not be banned, but the number of flights will depend on how much airlines can cut emissions with electric planes or biofuels.
The UK Oil and Gas Authority said in a statement: “Oil and gas will remain an important part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future, including under net zero scenarios. Maximising the economic recovery from the UK remains vital to meet those energy demands as long as they exist, and to reduce reliance on imports.”
The report’s warning was strongly backed by senior figures. “Ensuring a liveable planet for future generations means getting serious about phasing out coal, oil and gas,” said Christiana Figueres, at Mission 2020 and is the person who delivered the Paris agreement in 2015 as the UN’s top climate official. “Countries such as Costa Rica, Spain and New Zealand are already showing the way forward, with policies to constrain exploration and extraction – others must now follow their lead. There is no time to waste.”
Prof Nicholas Stern, at the London School of Economics, said: “This important report shows planned levels of coal, oil and gas production are dangerously out of step with the goals of the Paris agreement.”
The report highlights the nations that are taking some action, including the closure of most coal mines in Spain and some in China, along with the end of new offshore oil and gas exploration licences in New Zealand and some parts of the Arctic governed by Canada, the US and Norway.
Verkuijl said a global agreement to phase out production would be ideal but is difficult at present with the US under President Donald Trump, as the country is due to withdraw from the Paris agreement. But she said many Democratic presidential candidates have promised to cut fossil fuel production by restricting extraction on public land, for example, or removing subsidies. She said such a candidate beating Trump in the 2020 election would be a “gamechanger”.
The report said it was crucial that workers in fossil fuel industries were helped into new employment as production ramped down. “Leaders need to [talk with] workers and their unions to plan a just transition away from fossil fuels,” said Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation.
The analysis is based on the published national plans of eight key producers: Australia, Canada, Russia, US, China, India, Indonesia and Norway, which account for 60% of global fossil fuel production. The plans of other big producers, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, are not publicly available. The researchers assumed these nations would follow similar paths as the eight countries that were covered.