Awash in fossil fuels

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As government ministers prepare their speeches for the next big international meeting to discuss progress in resolving the climate crisis, a new report from the United Nations presents more compelling evidence that governments’ efforts to restrain emissions and to keep global warming to less than 2°C are way off track. 

Called The Production Gap,  in a memorable phrase the report states that the world is “awash in fossil fuels”.

There is still a huge discrepancy between government plans for fossil fuel production and the levels consistent with the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 or even 2°C of warming. The chart shown here from  Inside Climate News shows how current plans for the production of fossil fuels are grossly out of alignment with efforts to constrain global heating.

The most striking part of the chart shows that, even taking into account countries’ pledges to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide from coal, oil, and natural gas, emissions are forecast to actually increase over the next 20 years. This is a pathway that leads to unmanageable global temperatures, widespread regional conflict, and global chaos as millions of climate refugees seek a safer haven.

Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with  2°C pathway, and a whopping 120 % more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway—an objective that is looking increasingly like a lost cause.  The report notes that while many governments plan to decrease their emissions, they are signalling exactly the opposite when it comes to fossil fuel production.  Governments continue to support production in numerous ways. They not only play a central role in the permitting of exploration and extraction; they also support the fossil fuel industry through direct investment, research and development funding, and the responsibility they take on for liability and risk. Fossil fuel subsidies extend to all stages of  production and processing: from research, development and exploration to operations, transport, processing, marketing, decommissioning, and site remediation.

Made in Canada

Canada is no slouch when it comes to promoting its fossil fuels. The country is the world’s sixth largest oil producer and the fourth largest producer of natural gas. Government plans for oil and gas production are shown in the graphs below—which are based on reports from the (fossil-fuel friendly) National Energy Board.  It’s clear that the production of oil and natural gas in 2040 is forecast to be substantially higher than present values. There is no slowdown, no peaking, and no reduction in emissions.  

Is exporting coal, oil and natural gas a good way of making money while shifting the emissions count over to someone else?  Maybe that’s what the Canadian government means by clean energy?  No, that doesn’t work either. The UN report states that the extraction-based emissions of carbon dioxide from Canada’s fossil fuel exports nearly doubled from 2000 to 2015, and now exceeds the country’s domestic CO2 emissions from all sources. And if methane from the processing of bitumen from the tar sands is factored in, the emissions total is even higher. The idea that Canada is going to come even remotely close to meeting its Nationally Declared Contribution to the Paris Agreement targets is looking more and more like a pipe dream.

Gap number 2

The next meeting of the Conference of Parties to the 2105 Paris Agreement, where governments will discuss the progress made towards meeting the target of keeping global warming within reasonable bounds, is scheduled to start the first week of December in Madrid. Perhaps to keep up the pressure on laggards like Canada, the UN has just released a second report. This is the more familiar Emission Gap Report that is now in its 10th edition.  Prepared by an international team of leading scientists, it once again carefully documents why present efforts to meet the Paris Agreement targets are insufficient. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, describes them as “totally inadequate”.   If government’s fail to strengthen their national programs (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs), global temperatures are well on the way to rising above 3°C by the end of the century. This  is the world’s current business-as-usual planning. It is totally unacceptable, and it dooms all young people around the world to a life fraught with danger and hardship.  No wonder so many of them are in the streets.

Follow the leader

It seems that only the Europeans are actually taking the problem seriously. Among the top greenhouse gas emitting countries, only the European Union has registered a continuing decline in emissions over the course of this century—both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis. Governments, including that of Canada, could substantially raise their game if they took their cue from the Europeans. But the 2019 Emissions Gap report says that the EU can do even better: According to the report the EU should:

  • Adopt an EU regulation to refrain from investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure, including new natural gas pipelines
  • Define a clear endpoint for the EU emissions trading system (ETS) in the form of a cap that must lead to zero emissions
  • Adjust the framework and policies to enable 100 per cent carbon-free electricity supply by between 2040 and 2050
  • Step up efforts to phase out coal-fired plants
  • Define a strategy for zero-emission industrial processes
  • Reform the EU ETS to more effectively reduce emissions in industrial applications
  • Ban the sale of internal combustion engine cars and buses and/or set targets to move towards 100 per cent of new car and bus sales being zero-carbon vehicles in the coming decades
  • Shift towards increased use of public transport in line with the most ambitious Member States
  • Increase the renovation rate for intensive retrofits of existing buildings

Maybe the Canadian government should cut and paste this portfolio of policy initiatives into its presentation next week in Madrid. When it comes to climate change management, the Europeans are way ahead. Canada needs to catch up–fast.

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Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

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