It is now clear that keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the single biggest factor in whether we keep global temperatures below pre-industrial levels- or below 1.5C as it is often referred to. But a new study shows that this means more than just not mining or drilling at new sites.
It means stopping production from existing fossil fuel projects.
As co-lead author, Greg Muttitt of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, says, “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.”
An alternative to halting mining and drilling is to capture the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. But, as the study’s authors point out, this isn’t currently possible on a large scale.
How does the study relate to the Ukraine war?
The finding could have huge ramifications for Russia, whose reserves of oil, gas and coal, account for 13 per cent of the global total.
The study’s co-lead author disputes the current response to the Ukraine war. “Our study reinforces that building new fossil fuel infrastructure is not a viable response to Russia’s war on Ukraine,” said co-lead author Kelly Trout of Oil Change International.
Put simply, “The world has already tapped too much oil, gas, and coal.”
The study, led by researchers from Oil Change International and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, is the first complete assessment of the carbon which will be produced by existing planned extraction of gas, oil and coal.
It builds on the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent finding that no new coal mines or oil and gas fields can be developed under a 1.5°C warming limit.
“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 co-lead author, Greg Muttitt of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Which countries will need to stop producing fossil fuels early?
The paper reviewed a database of over 25,000 oil and gas fields and developed a new dataset of coal mines across nine of the largest coal-producing countries. Using this data, they found that developed fields and mines could lead to cumulative emissions of 936 Gt CO2. This a figure 60 per cent larger than the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C.
The warning comes as many countries seek new oil and gas exploration in response to geopolitical developments in eastern Europe.
Almost 90 per cent of developed fossil fuel reserves are located in just 20 countries, led by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and followed by Iran, India, Indonesia, Australia, Canada, and Iraq.
A recent paper by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research found that the wealthiest countries should phase out their oil and gas production by 2034 to facilitate an equitable global transition within the 1.5C limit.
What are governments doing about fossil fuel extraction?
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, several governments including Denmark, Sweden and France launched a Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, committing to end new licensing for oil and gas exploration and production.
“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,” said co-author Roman Medelevitch of the Ӧko-Institut.
“Where possible, governments should rather take advantage of scarcity price signals to push for sufficiency and efficiency measures and to promote renewable energy sources.”
The researchers noted that the more fossil fuel extraction is wound down, the more governments could lower political and legal barriers to climate policy, by reducing political entanglement with the fossil fuel industry.