Governments must stop encouraging fossil fuel companies to invest in new production sites

'Scientists believe the world is increasingly likely to experience global warming of 1.5C within the next five years because of record greenhouse gas levels'.

Local councils and net zero

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Climate change keeps outpacing our ability to not just to control it, but also to predict it.

As recently as August 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s panel of climate science experts, was predicting that the 1.5C temperature limit could be breached by 2040 if humanity failed to act on rising emissions.

Eight months on and scientists believe the world is increasingly likely to experience global warming of 1.5C within the next five years because of record greenhouse gas levels.

There is a 48% chance Earth’s annual temperature will exceed 1.5C of warming, compared with pre-industrial levels, in one of the years between now and 2026, the World Meteorological Organization and the UK Met Office said in a report published this week. That probability is likely to keep rising, it added.

The 1.5C limit matters. “The 1.5C figure is not some random statistic,” said Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general. “It’s an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.”

To have a chance of staying below the 1.5C limit scientists believe we need to cut global carbon emissions by 43% by 2030, a challenging goal but one nonetheless achievable with available technology if sufficient political will and, crucially, finance is made available.

But the so-called decisive decade has got off to an inadequate start. Emissions cuts caused by pandemic shutdowns have been followed by swift rises as economies have begun to recover lost ground, with carbon emissions last year reaching the highest levels ever recorded.

The war in Ukraine has made matters worse. Countries have rightly, and arguably far too slowly, sought to end their dependence on Russian oil and gas. However in most cases they are attempting to plug the gap with fossil fuels from other sources, instead of taking the opportunity to jump straight to renewables.

Some governments are even planning to burn more coal, the most polluting form of fossil fuel, to restore energy supplies. The UK Government, despite its grandiose pledges on net zero, is among them, using the war to justify opening a coal mine in Cumbria. Encouragingly, the British steel industry is refusing to use coal from the mine should it open.

The rise in emissions and consequent rise in the likelihood the 1.5C limit will be breached is a direct consequence of countries’ failure to act on pledges made at last year’s COP26 summit, made worse by attempts to replace Russian energy with fossil fuel from other sources.

At the Glasgow COP26 climate summit last year more than 80% of the world’s countries had agreed to adopt net zero targets. But there has been scant policy action to implement that goal in the months since, and little progress toward improved national targets ahead of the next big summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh this year.

Worse, in their attempt to wean themselves off Russian fuels some governments are not only seeking oil and gas from existing sources, but also encouraging fossil fuel companies to invest in new production sites. Rising oil and gas prices due to the war in Ukraine have further incentivised companies to press ahead with new fields and infrastructure that would last decades.

If built, these oil and gas projects would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts.

In 2015, a high-profile analysis found that to limit global temperature below 2C, half of known oil reserves and a third of gas had to stay in the ground, along with 80% of coal.

In May 2021 a report from the International Energy Agency, previously seen as a conservative body, concluded there could be no new oil or gas fields or coalmines if the world was to reach net zero by 2050.

More warnings followed. An updated scientific analysis found the proportion of fossil fuel reserves that would need to stay in the ground for 1.5C jumped to 60% for oil and gas and 90% for coal, while the UN warned that planned fossil fuel production “vastly exceeds” the limit needed for 1.5C.

“The world is in a race against time,” said UN secretary general, António Guterres. “It is time to end fossil fuel subsidies and stop the expansion of oil and gas exploration.”

Reflecting on the war in Ukraine he said: “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Inaction post COP26, combined with news that fossil fuel companies are planning new oil and gas fields, has prompted some to argue that the 1.5C goal is dead. Others are unwilling to give up.

US climate special envoy John Kerry is among them. “I refuse to [give up] because we don’t have to. Already we have the technology to do what we need to do over the next 8 years,” he told the BBC World Service.

“We need to get to work,” he said, and “to deploy far more renewables. We need to be accelerating research and development. We need to be living up to the promises that we’ve made.”

He pointed to evidence that while in the short term many governments have sought non-Russian sources of fossil fuel, in the long run the war has convinced them to expedite the transition to renewables.

“What Putin has done by using gas as a weapon is to convince Europe that it has to move faster so in fact Europe is going to try to move to renewable energy much faster than they originally had planned. The key will be finding greater levels of finance on an international basis to accelerate the transition.”

Some European countries have made more ambitious pledges. The German government has announced plans to give up coal entirely by 2030, eight years earlier than the target set by the previous government. It now aims for Germany to get 80% of its electricity from renewable energy by then, up from the previous goal of 65% – and nearly double the 42% share it supplied in 2021.

France, long reliant on nuclear reactors for 70 percent of its power needs, has promised a major push for more renewables. Austria, even more dependent on Russian energy than Germany, is pouring money into subsidies for renewable energy. Even Poland, one of Europe’s heaviest coal consumers, is investing heavily in offshore wind.

“What has changed now is everyone realises we need to ramp up renewable capacity even faster,” says Matthias Buck, Europe director at Agora Energiewende, a think tank that focuses on the energy transition. “The war is making it very clear that if you want to control your own fate, it’s better to prioritise renewables and end reliance on fossil fuels.”

Spurred by the security fears sparked by the war in Ukraine, combined with pre-existing knowledge of climate risks, governments are making the right commitments just as they did at COP26 last year.

What is needed now is for governments to match ambition with action, not only to invest in renewables but also to prevent fossil fuel companies from bringing more fossil fuel fields online.

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