It is boom time in the deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, where vast oil reserves buried in the Permian geological basin are getting a second life, thanks to fracking. Though tapped for more than a century, the basin still contains the largest oil reserve in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. Output has tripled in a decade. And big oil appears determined to tap every last drop.
In October, Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental, one of the largest operators there, promised yet more production in a basin that Bloomberg last year described as “uniquely positioned to become the world’s most important growth engine for oil production.”
Did nobody tell them about climate change?
The fossil-fuel business is burgeoning too on the frozen shores of the Arctic Ocean, at the giant Bovanenkovo gas field in Russia’s Yamal peninsula. By drilling deeper, state-owned Gazprom plans to more than double production by 2030. Bovanenkovo may soon be producing 40 percent of Russian gas.
Meanwhile, China itself is set to open dozens more giant coal mines — each with reserves whose burning would emit more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide. China has almost a third of the world’s proposed new coal mines, and Beijing this year announced plans to fast-track them into service.
The COP28 conference will hear calls from governments for a ban on all further development of fossil-fuel mines and wells.
Similarly, off the reef-lined shores of the Persian Gulf, the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG), Qatar, is preparing to expand production by more than 60 percent between 2021 and 2027. Extensions to the vast North Field reserve are intended to ship LNG to Asia and Europe until at least the 2080s.
These developments — often called “carbon bombs” for their potential to supercharge the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere — are among the largest of hundreds set to expand global production of fossil fuels in the next few years. They help explain why, even as renewable energy production soars, CO2 emissions remain stubbornly high — rising by 1 percent last year.
The promises made by governments at UN climate conferences to deliver net-zero emissions by mid-century are clearly not yet delivering. Critics say they are too nebulous and hold nobody to account, especially in the short term.
So, in the run-up to the next talks, in Dubai in December, calls for a fossil fuel phaseout are growing. The conference, known as COP28, will hear calls from many government delegations for it to outlaw all further development of fossil-fuel mines and wells and to set deadlines to end existing extraction. The question is: Will the conference respond?
This week, 15 nations — including France, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and other members of a group called the High Ambition Coalition — issued a call for COP28 to deliver an “urgent phaseout of coal-fired power generation” and a commitment to “ending new coal and the expansion of existing coal mines.” But on oil and gas, despite declaring that “fossil fuels are at the root of this crisis,” they proposed only that fossil fuel producing companies should “publish trackable transition plans” for cutting their emissions.
Given the influence of the world’s oil and gas producing nations, and the need for unanimity in the final declaration, this may be the most that can be expected.
The crisis is urgent. Climate change is “happening much more quickly than expected,” according to the new chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Jim Skea of Imperial College London. This year is on track to be 1.4 degrees C (2.5 degrees F) warmer than the preindustrial average, rapidly approach the 1.5-degree limit for the long-term average that is meant to be the cornerstone of international climate policy. Last month a group of top climate scientists, headed by ecologist William Ripple of Oregon State University, warned that the climate system is “entering uncharted territory,” with “the approach of damaging tipping points sooner than expected.”
There are formidable force aligned against a phaseout, including the conference host nation, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.
But action to address the crisis is still at a snail’s pace. It is eight years since the 2015 Paris Agreement committed the world to capping planetary warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). The IPCC says that the 1.5-degree target requires a 45-percent cut in emissions by 2030. But halfway to that date, there is no decline. Meanwhile a new analysis by researchers at Imperial College London concluded that if emissions carry on at the current rate, our entire remaining “budget” for CO2 emissions while remaining below 1.5 degrees will be exhausted by 2029.
The official UN Global Stocktake of progress on the Paris Agreement, published in September, is clear about what must happen. “Achieving net-zero CO2,” it says, requires “transformations across all sectors and contexts, including scaling up renewable energy while phasing out all unabated fossil fuels.” [italics added]
Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, the Global Stocktake report is meant to be the basis for discussions at COP28 to revise emissions targets to meet the Paris temperature promise. But so far there are few signs of many negotiators fully embracing the implications of this finding.
The call has many advocates among industry leaders who want the policy clarity that distant emissions targets and temperature ambitions do not provide. In October, more than 100 blue-chip companies — from Unilever to eBay and Volvo to Bayer — called for the Dubai COP to set a timetable for phaseout, including entirely decarbonizing power systems “by 2035 in advanced countries, and by 2040 by other countries at the latest.”
The International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based intergovernmental organization, advised in September that achieving the 1.5-degree target means no new oil or gas projects or coal mines from now on.
But there are formidable forces aligned against a phaseout. They include the conference host nation, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, and favor a much-vaguer pledge to “phase down” fossil fuels. In a letter to national delegations in July, COP28 president-designate Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is also the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s state oil company, ADNOC, said “phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential.” But he has not spelt out what that might mean in practice and opposes full phaseout.
A time-tabled phaseout commitment for all fossil fuels would put the spotlight on the major suppliers with big climate-threatening expansion plans, which could spook would-be financiers concerned that their investments could lose value and become stranded assets. So where are the “carbon bombs” that need to be defused?
An analysis headed by Kjell Kühne, a geographer at the University of Leeds, last year found 425 fossil-fuel extraction projects around the world in production or development that each had reserves that could emit more than a billion tons of CO2. Kuhne, who is also director of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative, a German advocacy group, found that 10 countries account for three-quarters of the emissions potential of these carbon bombs.
The fear is that talking up the prospect of capturing future emissions will provide a ready excuse for sticking with fossil fuels.
China is way out ahead with 141 carbon bombs, the great majority of them coal mines. As of 2020, 48 of them had yet to open. Next come Russia with 41 — a mixture of coal, gas, and oil of which half were yet to open — and the U.S. with 28, most of them oil and gas, of which seven were yet to open. The other seven are Middle Eastern oil and gas countries Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iraq; Australia, a major coal supplier to China; India, another coal giant; and Canada.
Of the three main fossil fuels, burning coal generally delivers the least energy per ton of carbon emitted. So arguably, outlawing new coal mines should be the highest global priority. But a new analysis in October this year from the German NGO Urgewald found that 31 countries currently still have plans for new coal mines, enough to raise global production (and hence emissions) by 35 percent.
What of oil and gas? Here, too, boom shows little sign of turning to bust. Certainly not the largest fossil-fuel reserve on the planet, Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar oil field, which has been in production since 1951, but still has enough buried underground to maintain current output to 2050 and beyond. Two big new projects to increase Ghawar’s natural-gas output are expected to be fully operational by the end of this year.
The U.S. is currently the world’s biggest oil producer and is likely to remain so, according to an analysis of future extraction plans by Oil Change International, a Washington D.C.-based NGO. The study found that more than a third of planned oil and gas expansion globally between now and 2050 is slated for the U.S., with potential emissions of 72.5 billion tons.
Much of this will be for export. The U.S. is already the world’s largest natural-gas exporter, and in October the Biden administration was reportedly on the verge of adding to that by granting approval for what would be one of the world’s largest natural-gas export hubs. The $10 billion project on the Louisiana coastline would be linked by pipelines to Texas and beyond, including the Permian Basin.
Many oil and gas companies are intent on boosting output, while also improving their environmental reputations. This requires some sleight of hand. In the run-up to Dubai, the oil-man-turned-conference-president Al Jaber has found support among oil companies to commit to reaching net zero by 2050. It sounds impressive, but the small print shows that the pledge only relates to emissions from their operations — not the burning of their products.
In many cases, oil companies committing to “net zero” also plan to increase production. Al Jaber’s own company, ADNOC, intends to raise its oil output by 25 percent by 2027.
At a G20 meeting earlier this year, Saudi Arabia blocked even a joint declaration in favor of phasing down fossil fuels.
Some fossil fuel companies argue that technology will come to the rescue. They say they should be able to carry on ratcheting up output so long as their customers eventually fit equipment to capture the resulting emissions. With the host country’s encouragement, COP28 is set to put this argument center stage, says Skea.
But the fear is that talking up the prospect of capturing future emissions will provide a ready excuse for sticking with fossil fuels in the meantime. That is dangerous since the technology has a long way to go. The IEA estimates that current carbon capture and storage facilities trap only about 45 million tons of CO2 annually, little more than a thousandth of today’s emissions.
Other approaches to curbing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, such as using nature to hold more carbon, have also so far failed to deliver. Promises made in the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests to end deforestation by 2030 are well off track. Deforestation increased by 4 percent in 2022. And projects for offsetting emissions by planting and protecting forests to absorb CO2 are in turmoil after widespread allegations of fraudulent and over-optimistic assessments of their carbon benefit.
All this reinforces the view that phasing down and phasing out emissions from burning fossil fuels is the only reliable means of curbing the inexorable rise in atmospheric CO2 emissions in the next few decades.
Until two years ago, no UN climate agreements mentioned fossil fuels. They were the elephant in the room. That finally changed at COP26 in Glasgow, where British conference president Alok Sharma pushed for a pledge that countries phase out all burning of coal. On the final day, he was outflanked by China and India, the world’s two largest coal-producing and coal-burning nations, who change the language to “phase down.”
A year later, at COP27 in Egypt, many countries called for a phase-down to cover all unabated fossil fuels. But hosts Egypt declined to include it in the conference declaration.
Since then, a few governments — including nuclear-powered France — have made unilateral phaseout pledges. And this week’s statement from the High Ambition Coalition may up the stakes, even without U.S. support. But several big producers of fossil fuels have publicly set their face against any such agreement in Dubai. At a G20 meeting earlier this year, Saudi Arabia reportedly blocked even a joint declaration in favor of phasing down fossil fuels. Russia has taken a similar stance.
COP28 already has a busy agenda. Money matters will occupy much of delegates’ time. Most notably establishing the rules for running the long promised “loss and damage” fund to compensate vulnerable countries for the impact of extreme weather caused by climate change. The latest talks on that failed in mid-October. Yet that issue matters for global equity, and failing it resolve it could wreck the conference.
But the planet’s atmospheric thermostat responds to CO2, not dollars. Taking control of that thermostat will require halting the hemorrhaging of ever more fossil carbon into the atmosphere. And it will require, as the UN stocktake concludes, a total phaseout of fossil fuels — starting with banning the opening of new mines and wells.