What would US President Joe Biden answer if asked to cut his country’s oil and gas extraction by three-quarters by 2030 and end it permanently four years later? You can guess – even without a war in Ukraine.
Yet that is what Biden, according to the study published last week Phaseout Pathways for Fossil Fuel Production of the British Tyndall Center has promised when he brought the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) immediately after taking office. His predecessor Donald Trump had just turned his back on the international climate community with great fanfare.
The Tyndall Centre, in which several British universities work together for climate research, translated the climate promises of world leaders into hard figures with great precision. For a change, the researchers did not look at greenhouse gas emissions, but at the production of fossil fuels. They are responsible for the vast majority of those emissions.
For how long, they wondered, would countries be allowed to extract coal, oil and gas if they wanted to limit warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius – at least with a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding? What would it mean if the probability of success had to be greater than 50 percent? And what does it take to stay well below 2 degrees, the minimum target of Paris?
The researchers’ findings seem far from reality. Because who seriously believes that countries like the US and Norway – not to mention Russia – are prepared to extract less oil and gas every year from now on and in just over ten years – in the case of Russia a little longer – completely with it? to stop? Despite all the nice words about climate, world leaders like to pretend business as usualjust continuing what they’ve always done is still a viable option.
“And not just world leaders,” said Kevin Anderson over the phone, co-author of the Tyndall study. “Even environmental organizations and climate scientists are not always willing to accept the conclusions of their own analyses. They try to make the bitter climate pill taste a bit sweeter. Climate science is robust and meticulous when it comes to the facts, but many scientists are not honest about the political implications of those facts.”
Climate Policy Scenarios
The criticism of Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the universities of Manchester, Uppsala and Bergen, focuses mainly on working group 3 of the IPCC (the United Nations climate panel). That working group is responsible for the IPCC report that will be published next Monday. This outlines scenarios for mitigation of climate change based on two previous reports – on the foundations of climate science and the consequences of warming.
According to Anderson, the results of working group 3 were previously always far too optimistic. “Tackling climate change is a political issue,” he says. “But Working Group 3 had only one political outcome, a vision dominated by confidence in future technologies to reduce CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere. I see that as a form of greenwashing of current climate policy. That is very dangerous.”
According to Anderson, large amounts of ‘negative emissions’ are used in the climate models to calculate the consequences of the scenarios to make the figures correct – much more than is currently achievable. For example, new forests should be planted to reduce CO2 the size of one and a half times the European Union. Quite risky for biodiversity and food security. In addition, projects to reduce CO2 storage, for example in depleted gas fields, which are still in their infancy. They are few and they have the CO2concentration in the atmosphere has been reduced by just 0.02 percent worldwide so far, the researchers write. Some of this technology, according to the study, only exists “in the imagination of modellers and engineers.”
Also read: Humans are not adapting quickly enough to climate change
To meet the Paris climate target, countries must immediately phase out all fossil fuel production, and the richest countries must stop completely by 2034. What do you think the chances of success are?
“I am not naive. The political will seems to be lacking. There is nothing to indicate that politicians are willing to stick to their own commitments. Even if they are in line with climate science and based on justice. No one seems to care about what happens to poorer countries, or what this means for the future of our children.
“Yet the banking crisis and corona have also shown that leaders can change very quickly, that a global response to a state of emergency is possible. Unfortunately, that does not seem to apply to the climate crisis. But you should never lose hope. Some politicians do want to change quickly, and for them an investigation like ours can be a boost.
“As a scientist, you have no choice but to share your knowledge in the public debate. Does that also mean we will be successful? No, we will probably fail and the global average temperature will rise 3 to 4 degrees. But if we don’t try, we are guaranteed to fail.”
Doesn’t the Western response to soaring energy prices due to the war in Ukraine show that governments have learned little?
“First of all, let them recognize that Russia owes its current position to the fact that we did not switch to renewable energy in time. That was a choice of our governments that stems from our obsession with gas. It makes no sense to call gas a transition fuel. Gas is methane, CH4: four light parts hydrogen and one part carbon, which makes up 75 percent of the weight of gas. How can you call something three quarters carbon ‘low carbon’? It’s rhetoric from weak politicians who only want the oil and gas industry to do what it’s been doing for a hundred years. Now we are faced with the consequence of that rhetoric: high prices and dependence on Russia.”
What can we do now?
“We need to reduce the demand for gas as soon as possible. But instead, we’re just looking for new offerings. That makes sense, because reducing demand requires a radical change of the most prosperous part of our society. Their energy consumption is many times higher than that of the poorer population.
“Rich people don’t have to worry about the energy crisis, they can afford it financially. Intervening in demand and distributing the remaining supply fairly means that especially the rich part of the population will have to drastically change their consumption pattern. And those are the people who make the decisions.”
You mention the money rich countries make from oil and gas extraction’nice to have† Sometimes it is more than 10 percent of the gross domestic product. That’s more than a nice extra, isn’t it?
“14 percent of Norway’s GDP comes from oil and gas. If they stop doing that, they’ll still be left with 86 percent. For the US it is about 8 percent. Of course you can say that this is a lot. But how much of their GDP will they lose if the earth warms 3 to 4 degrees? We are now bemoaning the loss of wealth because we have to get rid of fossil fuels so quickly. But we let it come to this ourselves.
“We pretend to accept science. But that’s not true. Because then we would never pass this legacy on to our children. We say to them: ‘Sorry, we need some extra oil and gas, so we ship you with 3 to 4 degrees of warming.’ That can mean two things. Or our kids don’t care, which I can’t imagine. Or it is a denial of the seriousness of climate change.
“We have collectively fooled ourselves for thirty years. The physics of climate change is not interested in fancy speeches, but only in the amount of CO2molecules in the atmosphere. We have long pretended that the political narrative was stronger than the physics, but the physical reality is now catching up with the political one.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 1 April 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 1, 2022