“The whole world is clinging to the handrails on a boat that is lurching through increasingly turbulent seas. Nobody is safe.” Unfortunately, the dramatic quote and the menacing image it paints do not come from the latest instalment in the increasingly popular literary genre of dystopian fiction. It is, in fact, Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who thus introduces the findings in the organisation’s latest report, The Production Gap: Phasing down or phasing up?
I’ll give you the executive summary. Despite all the net-zero pledges and decarbonising initiatives, fossil fuel-producing nations are on a roll, planning for massive expansions. We are talking about 460% more coal production, 83% more gas and 29% more oil in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Remember that old Paris Agreement goal? In the words of another UN official with a penchant for the dramatic, Secretary-General António Guterres, “Governments are literally doubling down on fossil fuel production; that spells double trouble for people and planet.”
However dystopic, the Production Gap report is hardly fiction. The analysis is based on recent publicly accessible plans and projections published by governments and affiliated institutions. Several research and academic institutions, including more than 80 experts from 30 countries, have contributed to the report, which has been duly peer-reviewed externally. The misalignment between the reality of fossil fuel production and the elusive target of limiting global warming has never been as apparent.
Of course, production expansion plans of this magnitude are hardly a secret. You will undoubtedly recognise the main culprits: India leads on coal, Saudi Arabia on oil, Qatar on gas, and Russia on the whole lot. Overall, only four countries have plans under which emissions from the fossil fuels they produce would fall: the UK, China, Norway and Germany. The US and Canada continue to ramp up oil production, as does the COP28 host country, the United Arab Emirates.
The message from UNEP is clear. “Governments must stop saying one thing and doing another, especially as it relates to the production and consumption of fossil fuels,” admonishes Ms Andersen.
Well, some of them do. Like the coal world champion India, for instance. “There is going to be pressure on nations at COP28 to reduce coal usage,” said India’s power minister RK Singh at a recent meeting of state energy ministers. “We are not going to do this… we are not going to compromise on availability of power for our growth, even if it requires that we add coal-based capacity.” Accordingly, the country’s steel ministry has reached out to the Mongolian government to fast-track imports of coking coal while discussing an increased sourcing of coal from Russia, Indonesia, and New Zealand.
India’s firm stance on coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, does not bode well for the upcoming talks in Dubai. Then again, judging by the latest analysis by the Associated Press (AP), the COPs are just “wining-and-dining fests for fossil fuel corporations that want to profit off of climate.” According to AP, nearly 400 people connected to fossil-fuel industries attended last year’s UN climate talks in Egypt, a larger representation than all but two of the national delegations. “Many of these same people, and possibly even more connected to fossil fuels, will likely be at this year’s official climate talks,” warn the analysts. “While the presence is palpable – such as oil countries and companies with huge, flashy stands in the trades pavilions – the influence is hard to quantify because much of the negotiating is done behind closed doors.”
“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,” writes Andersen. I can’t really decide if she sounds optimistic or desperate. It makes me feel seasick.