smoke from fossil fuel production

Smoke rises from fossil fuel production.

(Photo: rmitsch/Getty Images)

Earth Day Reality Check

As the climate crisis esscalates, the fossil fuel industry continues to mislead.

As we celebrate Earth Day, there are unrelenting warning signs the climate crisis could have reached a catastrophic tipping point. To bring us back from the edge, we must ignore the siren calls from the fossil fuel industry that they have the solutions to the crisis they created.

After decades of obfuscation, denial, and delay, time is not on our side. We have just experienced the warmest March on record. The 10 previous months also set a new temperature record and were ranked as the hottest on record. Scientists from the European Union climate change monitoring service are “very concerned.”

Other leading climate scientists, such as Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, believe that if temperatures do not fall by the end of this year, we could be moving into “unchartered territory.”

If the snowballing effects of our climate crisis seem overwhelming, the solutions have always been straightforward. “The main driver of the warming is fossil fuel emissions,” saysFriederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute.

The solutions to our climate crisis have been evident for decades: As our window for action decreases as our collective carbon budgets get smaller, we need a fast, fair, full, and funded fossil fuel phaseout. We need to stop fossil fuel subsidies and without dangerous distractions such as gas certification, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and carbon offsetting. We need a just transition to clean, renewable energy as soon as possible.

The industry’s Plan A for survival is to convince you that they are integral to the climate fight, and Plan B is to push plastics. Both of these are flawed.

To speed up the transition, we need to stop the market-manipulating incentives to use more fossil fuels, and one of those is subsidies. According to the International Monetary Fund, global fossil fuel subsidies were worth a staggering $7 trillion, or 7.1% of GDP, in 2022, reflecting a $2 trillion increase since 2020 due to government support from surging energy prices caused by the Ukraine war.

Subsidies for false solutions also create a double roadblock preventing the transition to clean energy. One of the key technologies being pushed by the oil industry and its allies is CCS, which, despite the hype, has a 50-year history of false hope and failure. In September 2023, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that “the history of CCUS has largely been one of ‘underperformance’ and ‘unmet expectations.’”

Despite this, governments are determined to hand more public money to an industry that rakes in record profits. They have spentover $20 billion and legislated or announced policies that could spend up to $200 billion more of public money on CCS. This is providing a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry.

Many countries want you to see them as climate leaders, but are actually climate villains. In December last year, Oil Change International (OCI) revealed that Norway spent $1 out of every $5 spent on CCS. Only the United States spent more public money on CCS subsidies: $8.08 billion.

Similarly, companies that want you to believe they are integral to the climate solution remain central to the problem. None of the Big Oil companies’ plans are remotely aligned with the 1.5°C warming Paris goals. Back in 2022, OCI and dozens of other civil society groups revealed that the eight largest oil and gas companies alone are involved in over 200 expansion projects on track for approval from 2022 through 2025—equivalent to the lifetime emissions of 77 new coal power plants.

More recently, the CarbonTracker think tank examined the 25 largest listed oil and gas companies and evaluated the extent to which they are aligned with the Paris climate goals. They concluded that none were aligned at all.Maeve O’Connor, the report author, said that although the world’s largest oil companies claimed to “be part of the solution in accelerating the energy transition… we see that none are currently aligned with the goals of the Paris agreement.”

Just as the companies are not aligned with Paris’ goals, neither are leading oil- and gas-producing countries. A recent OCI analysis found that none of the oil- and gas-producing countries in the North Sea are on track to stop drilling in time to reach the 1.5°C warming limit.

Although companies and countries are way off the pace to secure a liveable future, they are also trying to spin that they are an integral part of the climate solution and pushing back against a transition to renewable energy.

The fossil fuel hawks, like the boss of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, even told a recent influential oil and gas event that the world should give up on the “fantasy” idea of phasing out oil and gas altogether.

Others say gas could be integral to our future because it can be made “carbon neutral” by cleaning up leaking methane emissions through certification and carbon offsetting. Both of these strategies are flawed. Last year, OCI and Earthworks revealed that the growing gas certification industry, where third parties use monitors to identify leaks along the U.S. gas network, from drilling to distribution, was unreliable and ineffective.

The report quoted Chris Romer, the boss of one of the U.S.’s leading certification companies, Project Canary, stating, “We are going to be able to solve climate change with measurement.” Romer had argued that Project Canary’s “goal” was to allow the oil and gas industry to maintain “a social license to operate” and that “clean” certified carbon would allow the industry to operate “for many decades to come.” He called certified gas a “climate solution.” There are also leading American fracking companies, such as EQT, that are pushing the message that gas is central to the climate fight too.

It is not all doom and gloom. There is good news. According to the IEA, the world added 50% more renewable capacity in 2023 than the year before. And in the next five years, we will see the fastest growth yet. Last year, it also set a new record in renewables deployment in the power sector by reaching a total capacity of 3,870 gigawatts (GW) globally.

Last year at the COP28 climate talks, for the first time in United Nations history, the final agreement text named fossil fuels as the problem and pointed towards a solution, calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.”

The agreement is far from perfect, but history was made.

This Earth Day, the theme is “Planet versus Plastics.” According to the IEA plastics are set to drive nearly half of new oil demand growth by mid-century. So, the industry’s Plan A for survival is to convince you that they are integral to the climate fight, and Plan B is to push plastics. Both of these are flawed. “Plastics is the Plan B for the fossil fuel industry,” argues Judith Enck, Founder and President of Beyond Plastics.

Both the industry’s Plan A and B will tip us into climate chaos. If we are going to reduce our use of plastics, we have to reduce our use of oil. To do that, we must see through the spin and continue to push for a fast, fair, full, and funded phaseout of fossil fuels.

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