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Projected Fossil Fuel Production 'Dangerously Out of Step' With Global Climate Goals, UN Report Reveals

"Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with a 2°C pathway and 120% more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway."

"Ensuring a livable planet for future generations means getting serious about phasing out coal, oil, and gas," said Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UNFCCC. (Photo: Gerry Machen/Flickr/cc)

A United Nations report released Wednesday warns that worldwide projections for fossil fuel production over the next decade indicate that the international community is on track to fail to rein in planet-heating emissions and prevent climate catastrophe.

"This important report shows that governments' projected and planned levels of coal, oil, and gas production are dangerously out of step with the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change."
—Nicholas Stern, economics professor

The Production Gap (pdf), produced by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and other leading research organizations, claims to be the first assessment of the gap between countries' plans for coal, gas, and oil production and governments' plans to meet the primary targets of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The Paris accord is backed by every country on Earth except the United States under President Donald Trump, who earlier this month initiated the deal's yearlong withdrawal process. The agreement aims to keep average global temperature rise this century "well below" 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels, limiting it to 1.5°C.

"This important report shows that governments' projected and planned levels of coal, oil, and gas production are dangerously out of step with the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change," Nicholas Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said in a statement.

"It illustrates the many ways in which governments subsidize and otherwise support the expansion of such production," Stern added. "Instead, governments should implement policies that ensure existing production peaks soon and then falls very rapidly."

The new report's key findings, as the executive summary outlines, are:

  • Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with a 2°C pathway and 120% more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway;
  • This global production gap is even larger than the already-significant global emissions gap, due to minimal policy attention on curbing fossil fuel production;
  • The continued expansion of fossil fuel production—and the widening of the global production gap—is underpinned by a combination of ambitious national plans, government subsidies to producers, and other forms of public finance;
  • Several governments have already adopted policies to restrict fossil fuel production, providing momentum and important lessons for broader adoption; and
  • International cooperation plays a central role in winding down fossil fuel production.

Alongside the UNEP, other institutions that contributed to the report included the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Overseas Development Institute, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), and Climate Analytics.

"Despite more than two decades of climate policy making, fossil fuel production levels are higher than ever," said SEI executive director Måns Nilsson. "This report shows that governments' continued support for coal, oil, and gas extraction is a big part of the problem. We're in a deep hole—and we need to stop digging."

Hoda Baraka, chief communications officer for the global environmental group 350.org, concurred with Nilsson's comments Wednesday in an op-ed for Common Dreams about the new report. Baraka called the gap between climate policies and fossil fuel production "massive, worrying, and unacceptable."

Although the outlook of the report is bleak, Michael Lazarus, one of its lead authors, pointed out that "over the past decade, the climate conversation has shifted," and now "there's greater recognition of the role that the unfettered expansion of fossil fuel production plays in undermining climate progress."

Lazarus, who directs SEI's U.S. center, said that in addition to showing "just how big the disconnect is between Paris temperature goals and countries' plans and policies," the report "also shares solutions, suggesting ways to help close this gap through domestic policies and international cooperation."

The Production Gap notes that "most climate policy interventions seek to address the consumption, rather than the production, of coal, oil and/or gas, through measures such as pricing carbon, fostering alternative energy sources, and improving energy efficiency."

To meet the Paris climate goals, the report urges governments across the globe to also pursue supply-side policies, from subsidy reforms and taxation to imposing new regulations on extractive industries such as "banning new permits for exploration or extraction, or by limiting or rescinding existing fossil fuel licenses."

Examples include moratoriums on offshore oil exploration in Belize and Italy as well as just transition plans related to the coal industry in Germany and Spain. "Providing assistance to those impacted by a transition away from fossil fuels is almost certainly a necessary precondition for ambitious climate policy," the report says, acknowledging how efforts to phase out coal, gas, and oil affect workers and communities reliant on those industries.

"Ensuring a livable planet for future generations means getting serious about phasing out coal, oil, and gas," Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said Wednesday. "Countries such as Costa Rica, Spain, and New Zealand are already showing the way forward, with policies to constrain exploration and extraction and ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels. Others must now follow their lead."

According to The Production Gap, limiting fossil fuel production and implementing just transition plans isn't just a job for national governments—city, county, state, and other regional governments also can play key roles in pursuing such policies.

"Beyond governments, a range of other non-state actors are helping to facilitate the transition away from fossil fuel extraction, including companies, investors, trade unions, and civil society organizations," the report adds. "Through fossil fuel divestment campaigns and other efforts, civil society groups and investors have placed social, political, and economic pressure on governments and companies to move away from supporting fossil fuel production."

The report also emphasizes the importance of international ambition and action, with sections dedicated to winding down fossil fuel supply through the U.N. climate change process and other global institutions.

The Production Gap "comes as more than 60 countries have already committed to updating their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which set out their new emission reduction plans and climate pledges under the Paris agreement, by 2020," according to the organizations that produced the report.

World leaders are set to meet in Madrid for the UNFCCC's upcoming climate conference, which begins Dec. 2, to discuss countries' commitments under the Paris accord. Youth activists are planning a pair of global climate strikes to coincide with COP25.

"Across the globe resistance to fossil fuels is rising, the climate strikes have shown the world that we are prepared to take action," wrote Baraka of 350.org. "Going forward our job is to keep up a steady drumbeat of actions, strikes, and protests that gets louder and louder throughout 2020."

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