The world must begin swiftly winding down operational fossil fuel extraction projects – as well as spiking planned new oil, gas and coal developments – if greenhouse gas emissions are to be kept in line with a less-than-2°C rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels, a landmark report has calculated.
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The study, led by researchers from think-tanks Oil Change International (OCI) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), found that existing hydrocarbon fields and mines around the world would together release some 936 gigatons of CO2 “if fully depleted and burned” – 60% over carbon budget for the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C and “exhausting the remaining budget for staying well below 2°C”.
Claimed to be the first “complete assessment of committed or ‘locked in’ CO2 emissions” including those linked to online or planning-approved fossil fuel development and production projects, the report calculates that “in the absence of large-scale carbon capture or removal, nearly 40% of developed [hydrocarbon] reserves need to stay in the ground to keep the 1.5°C limit in reach”.
“Our findings show that halting new extraction projects is a necessary step, but still not enough to stay within our rapidly dwindling carbon budget,” said the IISD’s Greg Muttitt, who was co-lead author on the work, published today (Tuesday) in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
“Some existing fossil fuel licences and production will need to be revoked and phased out early. Governments need to start tackling head-on how to do this in a fair and equitable way, which will require overcoming opposition from fossil fuel interests.”
The OCI-IISD study, designed to expands on the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent finding that no new oil and gas fields or coal mines could be developed while keeping to a 1.5°C threshold, crunched numbers from a commercial database of over 25,000 oil and gas fields along along with a new dataset of mines in nine of the largest world’s coal-producing countries.
By ceasing award of new licences for fossil fuel exploration and production, governments “could both avoid further entrenching legal and political barriers to mitigation policies and minimise stranded assets”, said co-author Thijs Van de Graaf of Ghent University.
“Each new coal mine, gas well or oil field that is developed deepens political entanglement with the fossil fuel industry. Increasing the scale of extraction-related jobs and investments only makes it harder for governments to manage.”
Report co-author Dimitri Lafleur, from Global Climate Insights, added: “Our research should also be a warning sign for publicly listed companies and their investors that reserves that are on the books to be developed cannot be developed to stay below 1.5°C.
“Fossil fuel companies that claim to be aligned with the Paris Agreement and that need to transition their core businesses, need to accelerate their transition plans.”
Russia, according to the report’s tally-up, accounts for 13% of the total global hydrocarbons, with almost 90% of developed reserves located in 20 countries, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the US, Iran, India, Indonesia, Australia, Canada and Iraq.
Co-author Roman Medelevitch of the Oko-Institut, said: “As governments work to reduce their dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal in response to the current crisis, they must recognise that developing new reserves elsewhere takes years and will not make up for short-term scarcity.
“Where possible, governments should rather take advantage of scarcity price signals to push for sufficiency and efficiency measures and to promote renewable energy sources.”
OCI’s Kelly Trout said: “Our study reinforces that building new fossil fuel infrastructure is not a viable response to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“The world has already tapped too much oil, gas and coal. Developing more would either cause more dangerous levels of warming, if fully extracted, or create a larger scale of stranded assets.”
Trout highlighted that the study did not attempt to answer the question of “which” developed coal, oil and gas reserves should be shut down but pointed to a paper by researchers at the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research that concluded that “the wealthiest, most economically diversified countries should phase out” their oil and gas production by 2034 to speed “an equitable global transition” within the Paris Agreement limits.
The international gear-up to a renewables-driven global energy system will need to be supercharged by the removal of vast volumes of CO2 alongside “deep decarbonisation” for the planet to stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, according to a recent report from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC).