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Fossil fuel production ‘dangerously out of sync’ with global climate targets, UN warns

A bulldozer parked near a coal mound on the grounds of the Peabody Energy Francisco coal mine in Francisco, Indiana, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images

LONDON — As world leaders prepare for one of the most important climate summits ever held, U.N.-backed research shows governments are collectively planning to extract far more fossil fuels than would be consistent with global climate targets.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s annual production gap report, published on Wednesday, found governments were on track to produce more than twice the levels of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be needed to keep rising global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Ahead of the COP26 climate summit in just over a week, politicians and business leaders are under immense pressure to meet the demands of the climate emergency by delivering on promises made as part of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

The Paris climate accord aims to limit global heating to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to limit warming to the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

While every fraction of a degree matters, the aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius is regarded as particularly important because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely.

The UNEP’s report finds most major oil and gas producers are planning on increasing production out to 2030 and beyond, while several major coal producers are also planning on continuing or increasing production.

By the end of the decade, government’s production plans and projections were forecast to lead to around 240% more coal, 57% more oil and 71% more gas than would be consistent with limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The findings reaffirm the yawning gap between meaningful climate action and the rhetoric of policymakers and business leaders publicly touting their commitment to the so-called “energy transition.”

Policy support for fossil fuels

Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the chief driver of the climate crisis. Yet, despite a flurry of net-zero emission goals and increased pledges of many countries, some of the largest oil, gas and coal producers have failed to outline how they plan to drastically scale down fossil fuel use.

The world’s leading climate scientists warned in early August that limiting global heating to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius would be beyond reach in the next two decades without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The UNEP underscored this point once again, noting global fossil fuel production remains “dangerously out of sync” with Paris Agreement limits. It said worldwide fossil fuel use must start declining immediately and steeply to be consistent with limiting long-term warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report analyzed 15 major fossil fuel producers: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, the U.K. and the U.S.

The climate plans of the countries analyzed show oil, gas and coal production was on track to increase until at least 2040.

Of the three fossil fuels, gas production was expected to increase the most between 2020 and 2040, the report said, based on the governments’ plans.

Oil rigs work on platforms in Gaoyu Lake in Gaoyou in east China’s Jiangsu province Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Barcroft Media | Getty Images

Most governments continue to provide significant policy support for fossil fuel production, the report said, with G-20 countries having directed around $300 billion in new funds to fossil fuel activities since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. To be sure, this is more than they have directed toward renewable energy.

Research published in the scientific journal Nature on Sept. 9 found that the vast majority of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground to have some hope of preventing the worst effects of climate change.

It follows a bombshell report from the influential, yet typically conservative, International Energy Agency earlier this year. The IEA concluded that there should be no new oil, gas or coal development if the world was to reach net zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050.


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