COP25: net zero requires tackling fossil fuel production

3 December 2019
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An oil refinery in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Kris Krüg. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As countries approach this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, many are discussing how they will achieve ‘net zero’ by the middle of the century (with the UK setting its sights on 2050). While net zero is in theory a strong aspiration for climate action, the ‘net’ aspect allows countries to continue producing and burning highly polluting fossil fuels, choosing to offset these emissions overseas, or rely on as-yet unproven at scale negative emissions technologies to balance the books.

Unless concerted action is taken to stem the production and use of fossil fuels as well as their consumption, the world is heading towards a catastrophic level of global heating.

The Production Gap

Last week, UN Environment published its lauded Emissions Gap Report (EGR), which highlights the gap between where we need to be to keep global heating below 1.5˚C and where we’re headed based on current policies, plans and commitments.

The conclusions are terrifying: we need to reduce emissions by 7.6% every year from 2020 to 2030, or we’ll miss the chance to prevent runaway climate change.

Unless this happens, we’re heading for at least 3.2˚C by 2100, which would see the near complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, collapse in agricultural yields affecting food security, and a dramatic rise in extreme weather events worldwide.

The Production Gap Report (PGR) (produced by Stockholm Environment Institute and UN Environment, with input from ODI) takes the same approach as the EGR, but instead of comparing emissions trajectories with emissions reduction plans, it compares emissions trajectories with countries’ actual fossil fuel production targets based on their current economic policies. Again, the findings are chilling.

Our analysis shows that major fossil fuel producing countries’ plans are a massive 120% higher than is compatible with a 1.5˚C world. 

These two sets of findings show that while many governments may be talking a good game on the ‘green’ end of decarbonisation, they’re also steaming ahead on the ‘brown’ side, by planning to pull extraordinary amounts of coal, oil and gas out of the ground.

Why isn’t action being taken fast enough?

One key explanation for this production gap is the collective versus individual challenge of dealing with runaway climate change. Each fossil fuel rich country hopes they will be the one to pull the last drop of oil or gas out of the ground, but given every country is following this rationale, we’re on track to massively overshoot the carbon budget at a global level.

The outcome of this is clear when we consider that to hit 1.5˚C now requires nearly double the level of emissions reductions compared to 10 years ago.

It’s also worth noting that governments are unwieldy, and the departments responsible for fossil fuel production often have conflicting interests with those leading the low-carbon transition. While the former may prioritise economic growth in the short-term, the latter often recognise the old adage that ‘there’s no economic growth on a dead planet’.

The relationship between the production and consumption of fossil fuels is complex, but you can’t deal with one without the other.

There are a couple of reasons why governments have long prioritised reducing the consumption of fossil fuels over reducing their production. Firstly, despite the fact many countries are working to introduce low-carbon technology or offsetting, the Production Gap Report suggests few are considering reducing their fossil fuel production. Here in the UK, for example, the Government is legally obliged to extract “every last drop” of North Sea oil and gas, illustrating the extent to which this barrier is still very much in place.

Secondly, while many governments see the value in developing growing green sectors, they also struggle to accept the foregone revenue of leaving valuable resources such as oil unexploited, in spite of the fact that future profits in a climate-constrained world are far from guaranteed.

What do we want to see at COP25 and beyond?

Fossil fuels aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Paris Agreement, and until country parties, and non-party stakeholders (particularly businesses) commit to leave them in the ground, the chances of keeping global heating below 1.5˚C are slim.

As with all things climate change, this is a collective problem that requires individual action to achieve a solution. This COP, we hope to see countries start to recognise that they cannot keep producing fossil fuels as planned and must start reducing production immediately. The Nationally Determined Contributions update process is the perfect place to send these signals.

In the UK, this means cutting the huge subsidies provided to North Sea oil and gas, and redirecting these into financing a transition to support workers and communities in moving into low-carbon sectors. Finally, countries must start to clarify how they will achieve net zero, placing as much emphasis as possible on emissions reductions rather than offsetting and unproven negative emissions technologies.

Authors

Senior Research Officer
Leo’s work focuses on driving the transition to a low carbon world through shifting public and [...]