World’s Current Fossil Fuel Plans Will Shatter Paris Climate Limits, UN Warns

Within a decade, planned coal, oil and gas production will more than double what’s allowable to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, and that gap only grows.

Nov 20, 2019
Oil production and pipelines. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

"The world is awash in fossil fuels," the Production Gap report released by the United Nations on Nov. 20, 2019, says. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

The world's top fossil fuel-producing nations are on track to extract enough oil, gas and coal to send global temperatures soaring past the goals of the Paris climate agreement, according to a United Nations report published Wednesday.

If countries follow through on their current plans, they will produce about 50 percent more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be compatible with the international goal of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, the report said. 

They would blow past the more ambitious target of keeping warming under 1.5°C, the report found, with countries poised to produce twice as much oil, gas and coal by 2030 than would be allowable to meet that goal. A UN scientific report released last year laid out the risks that would bring, including worsening droughts, heat waves and extreme rainfall and accelerating sea level rise.

 

The Production Gap Report, which was written by a collection of research institutions and published by the UN Environment Program, warns that even as governments commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many continue to promote expanding fossil fuel production.

"The world is awash in fossil fuels," the report says.

Chart: The Fossil Fuel Production Gap

While renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, are increasingly competing with oil, gas and coal as their prices fall, "there is no guarantee that fossil fuels and their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will decline—let alone at the pace needed to avoid dangerous climate change," the report says.

"The continued drive to increase fossil fuel production throughout the world only makes that harder," it says.

In the United States, the world's top oil and gas producer, the report says state and federal subsidies and other policies are a significant factor driving surging output.

The Trump administration has put fossil fuel development at the top of its agenda for the past three years. It has been rolling back policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, working to fast-track pipelines and drilling, and has started the process of pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.

The same day the UN report was released, the Trump administration put out its regulatory agenda for 2020, with plans for removing more obstacles to fossil fuel production.

Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground

This is the first time the UN Environment Program has examined how fossil fuel production is creating a drag on government efforts to reduce emissions. Even though fossil fuels account for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the report says climate policy discussions rarely discuss limiting production. The text of the Paris Agreement, for example, does not mention fossil fuels.

The Production Gap report is an attempt to change that by examining what policies countries are using to promote growth and suggesting ways for phasing out production. Its release comes before the annual UN climate summit next month and as nations are expected to update their pledges under the Paris Agreement next year.

It is consistent with aims of the "Keep it in the Ground" movement that has sought to prevent further climate damage by trying to block new pipelines, mines and other major infrastructure projects that would effectively lock in new emissions for decades to come. Several of the Democratic candidates for U.S. president have also supported reducing fossil fuel production by ending new coal, oil and gas leases on federal land.

Some critics of that movement, particularly energy companies, have argued that global climate policies ought to focus exclusively on limiting demand for fossil fuels—through carbon pricing, for example—and reducing emissions with technologies that capture and store carbon dioxide, rather than restricting production.

The report says that while these conventional approaches are important, they are insufficient. Global emissions have continued to rise, and the pledges governments have made as part of the Paris Agreement are not expected to reduce emissions enough to meet the goals of the pact.

"Over the past decade, the climate conversation has shifted. There's greater recognition of the role that the unfettered expansion of fossil fuel production plays in undermining climate progress," said Michael Lazarus, a lead author on the report and the director of Stockholm Environment Institute's U.S. Center, in a statement.

"This report shows, for the first time, just how big the disconnect is between Paris temperature goals and countries' plans and policies for coal, oil, and gas production," he said.

One Big Problem: Subsidies

The authors examined policies in 10 leading fossil fuel producing nations—including the United States and Russia, but not the Arab oil-producing states, which didn't have publicly available plans—and found a range of subsidies and tax incentives promoting greater development.

The report acknowledges there are formidable barriers to changing these policies. Beyond private interests with substantial political influence, many national and regional governments depend on revenue from fossil fuel production.

But the report suggests a number of ways governments can phase out this production, from ending subsidies and limiting permitting for new drilling and mining to more ambitious plans that transition their economies away from fossil fuels. The report notes that several nations, including France, Germany, Costa Rica and others, have taken some of these steps.

These actions could limit countries' exposure to future financial risks, the report argues, by beginning to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels before demand drops. And if nations fail to take these steps, the report warns the results could be disastrous.

Absent "dramatic, unexpected" advances in the technology to remove carbon dioxide from smokestacks or directly from the air, the report warns "most of the world's proven fossil fuel reserves must be left unburned."

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