coal miner pit

Fossil fuel plans ‘dangerously’ at odds with 1.5°C target

Image credit: DT

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that plans to expand fossil fuel projects over the next decade are severely out of line with the ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit temperature rises to 1.5°C.

The UNEP worked with research institutions on its latest Production Gap Report, which identified that planned production by fossil-fuel-producing countries is 110 per cent above the levels that would curb temperature rises to 1.5°C. The 1.5°C target – rather than the maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels stated originally in the Paris Agreement – is considered critical for saving island nations and averting other catastrophic climate change impacts.

Scientists warn that the world is already experiencing worse extreme weather events at 1.2°C, and if temperatures rise above 1.5°C, the world faces significantly more heatwaves, rainstorms, droughts, lower crop yields, higher sea levels, greater reef destruction, and great economic losses.

Despite increased climate pledges from governments and businesses, the fossil fuel production 'gap' (between countries’ plans and what is necessary to curb this dangerous warming) has hardly shifted since the UN issued its first Production Gap Report in 2019.

The warning comes just days before world leaders are due to gather in Glasgow for COP26, where they will be under pressure to share details of their shorter-term decarbonisation plans and pledge at least $100bn in financial support for the Global South. Maintaining temperatures within 1.5°C requires rapidly phasing out fossil fuels this decade.

However, the UNEP report warns that governments’ production plans and projections will lead to 240 per cent more coal, 57 per cent more oil, and 71 per cent more natural gas in 2030 than would be consistent with this goal. Planned production in 2030 will be 45 per cent more than what is consistent with limiting warming to 2°C. It found that, over the next two decades, governments expect an increase in global oil and gas production and only a modest fall in coal production. Under current plans, global fossil fuel production will not peak until 2040 at the earliest.

Climate Action Tracker estimated that, even if all governments fulfilled their climate commitments, temperatures will rise by 3°C. The UN more recently estimated that the world is on track for 3.2°C warming, with greenhouse gas emissions reaching a new high in 2020.

“The devastating impacts of climate change are here for all to see,” said UNEP executive director Inger Andersen. “There is still time to limit long-term warming to 1.5°C, but this window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

“At COP26 and beyond, the world’s governments must step up, taking rapid and immediate steps to close the fossil fuel production gap and ensure a just and equitable transition. This is what climate ambition looks like.”

The UNEP report provides detailed profiles for 15 major fossil fuel producers, including the UK. It noted that the UK provided £3.7bn in tax allowances and relief for oil and gas production in 2019 and will provide billions more in tax relief for decommissioning in the coming decades, while its North Sea transition deal for the offshore oil and gas sector has no wind-down plans. Overall, governments have directed more than $300bn (£218bn) towards fossil fuel activities since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic; this is more than they have directed towards clean energy.

Ploy Achakulwisut, a lead author of the UNEP report, said: “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. However, governments continue to plan for and support levels of fossil fuel production that are vastly in excess of what we can safely burn.”

On a more encouraging note, it found that public international finance for production of fossil fuels from the largest economies and multilateral development banks has decreased significantly in recent years.

The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, commented: “Recent announcements by the world’s largest economies to end international financing of coal are a much-needed step in phasing out fossil fuels. But, as this report starkly shows, there is still a long way to go to a clean energy future. It is urgent that all remaining public financiers as well as private finance, including commercial banks and asset managers, switch their funding from coal to renewables to promote full decarbonisation of the power sector and access to renewable energy for all.”

In response, the governments of Costa Rica and Denmark urged other governments to join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and put an end to fossil fuel expansion while winding down existing production in a fair way.

Features, comment, and analysis from E&T’s latest issue, entirely focused on climate action ahead of COP26, can be found here.

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