27 August 2021 – Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the physical science of climate change, piling onto an already immense body of scientific literature that the climate crisis is dire.
The new report finds that we are now at 1.2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels and the climate is already changing, potentially activating irreversible trigger points. While it has long been held that the global warming threshold to safeguard the future would be 1.5°C, the scale of weather-related disasters around the world this summer alone suggests that even that trajectory would result in a very different climate than we are accustomed to.
Behind the stark language from the IPCC is a huge chasm that has plagued international discourse and coordination on climate to date: none have directly confronted the fossil fuel industry and the fact that burning fossil fuels is the principal cause of man-made climate change.
Fossil fuels are responsible for more than 86% of CO2 emissions in the past decade, but it remains a glaring failure of international statecraft that there are no agreements which address fossil fuel production or the industry’s planned expansion.
Existing agreements, like the Paris Climate Agreement, don’t mention coal, oil or gas once. And now, making matters worse, most ‘net zero’ targets from the public and private sector are more focussed on offsetting emissions in the distant future, rather than tackling the issue of fossil fuels immediately.
It is clear: fossil fuels are the elephant in the room.
This international policy chasm means that the fossil fuel industry has been allowed to continue expanding unchecked and uncurbed. This trend has escalated so much that the latest UNEP Production Gap Report finds that planned production will be 120% greater than what would be allowed under a 1.5°C budget.
Even the IEA, often criticised for underestimating renewables and overplaying the role of fossil fuels, says in its new net zero by 2050 scenario that there is no room for new fossil fuel investment if we are to keep warming under 1.5°C. The IEA’s conclusion has changed the game, underlining that the conversation must move on from “whether” we end fossil fuel expansion to “how we do it”.
This transition is already underway. Jurisdictions such as Spain, Denmark, Belize, Greenland and California have all made unilateral moves to adopt full or partial bans on new oil and gas exploration and production licenses. Asset managers and multilateral development banks are also following suit, not least the European Investment Bank’s commitment to end fossil fuel financing by the end of the year. But to achieve our climate goals and move with the urgency required, we need much more than one-off regional action; we need absolute international cooperation.
As the world endures the shared crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme economic vulnerability and the climate emergency, the need for the international community to work together has never been more essential. And these crises are even more acute in the Global South, where countries will need serious, imaginative support to jumpstart their energy transition.
As just one example of the scale of this challenge, Carbon Tracker Initiative analysis finds there are over 400 million people living in countries who are highly dependent on oil production revenues. Collectively, we must help these people and countries plan for a way out of both the pandemic and fossil fuels anchoring their economies.
To meet these challenges and action the clarion call of IPCC scientists, I believe that national governments must embrace recent calls for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty as a means of managing the global transition away from coal, oil and gas. Without an international mechanism to manage an equitable and orderly transition, many communities or countries – particularly those with state-owned fossil fuel resources – risk being left with stranded assets, with unmanageable historic debt and hugely vulnerable economies.
Scientists are becoming more vocal that fossil fuel production is the problem. Some of the most prominent minds of our time made up the 101 Nobel Laureates who called to end expansion earlier this year. Over 1,300 academics and scientists like myself have signed an open letter in support of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.
If politicians are not going to heed their message now – in the year of the crucial COP26 in November – then when? Failure to address the elephant in the room – and commit to policy actions that start to reduce fossil fuel production with immediate effect – would be an enormous failure of climate leadership, and set us on an ever-more perilous path we may come to regret.
From here on out, every year will be a critical year to make the transition faster and fairer. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”