Good news! The renewable energy sector is growing at an unprecedented rate! We are all saved. Oh, hang on, some more news is just coming in. Bad news! Fossil fuel production is growing at an unprecedented rate! We are all doomed. Given the current state of the world it would be quite nice to settle down with a nice cup of tea and ponder the former headline. Unfortunately, this is the Laundromat and bad news is our bread-and-butter, hence this week’s focus on the latest UN-sponsored Production Gap Report that was published on 8 November, 2023.
The first such report was released in 2019. This year’s iteration is the result of a collaboration between the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Climate Analytics, E3G, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (ISSD). The underlying analysis tracks the misalignment between national fossil fuel production plans and the levels consistent with the goals of the Paris climate agreement. The report reveals the uncomfortable truth that this year’s gap is just as large as the first one measured in 2019. While the world argues over the semantics of phasing out versus phasing down, oil producers are quietly going about their business. This involves plans to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Although coal extraction might diminish, current plans would also lead to steadily growing oil and gas production well beyond 2050.
Big Oil fighting back tooth and nail
Oil producers are using all the weapons in their arsenal to protect their revenue streams: climate denial-related scientific and academic sponsorship, greenwashing, sportswashing, cost-of-living arguments, negative political lobbying, war in Ukraine related energy security scaremongering, pledging reductions in Scope 1 and 2 emissions, promoting fossil fuels as supporting the low-carbon transition, and the promise of Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS). Many users of the social-media-platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter will also have seen a near-constant barrage of promotional content about the greatness of Saudi Arabia, the worst global culprit in terms of oil expansion plans. These are accompanied by periodic anti-Electric Vehicle (EV) campaigns on various media platforms, spreading disinformation about spontaneous EV combustion and dodgy battery lifespans. Given all this, the glaring question is how and why the fossil fuel industry has been allowed to get so deeply involved in the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP) process.
Among their conclusions the report’s authors state that CCUS is not currently a credible solution to the problem of GHG emissions, and that countries should therefore aim for a near-total phase out of coal by 2040 and a 75% reduction in oil and gas use and production by 2050 based on a 2020 base. Commenting on the report UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen did not mince her words: “Governments’ plans to expand fossil fuel production are undermining the energy transition needed to achieve net-zero emissions, throwing humanity’s future into question. Powering economies with clean and efficient energy is the only way to end energy poverty and bring down emissions at the same time. Starting at COP28, nations must unite behind a managed and equitable phase-out of coal, oil and gas — to ease the turbulence ahead and benefit every person on this planet.”
US, UK and Norway among “climate hypocrites”
While there is a lot of focus on the Gulf states, given the location of the upcoming COP28, they are by no means alone in contributing to this sorry state of affairs. The UNEP report focuses on 20 countries, which together accounted for 82% of production and 73% of consumption of fossil fuels in 2021. They are Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States of America (US). It is also worth calling out the climate hypocrites among wealthy nations. According to Washington based Oil Change International, the US, Canada, Australia, Norway, and the UK are best placed financially to implement a rapid phase out of fossil fuels, but together account for more than half of the planned expansion in oil and gas production.
The near complete absence of fossil fuels from the agendas of more than 20 COP events over the years beggars belief. In the last couple of COPs there have been the beginnings of quiet mutterings about the elephant in the room, but this fundamental argument now needs to take centre stage at COP28. This 2023 Production Gap Report should lay bare the emperor’s new clothes for all to see. The world cannot tolerate any more foot dragging, evasiveness, smoke-and-mirrors and obfuscation on climate action from petrostates.