Nearly half of existing fossil fuel production sites need to be shut down early if global heating is to be limited to 1.5C, the internationally agreed goal for avoiding climate catastrophe, according to a new scientific study. The new research reaches its stark conclusion by not assuming that new technologies will be able to suck huge amounts of COfrom the atmosphere to compensate for the burning of coal, oil and gas. Experts said relying on such technologies was a risky gamble. The researchers said governments should accelerate the introduction of renewable energy and efficiency measures instead.
The new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analysed a database of more than 25,000 oil and gas fields and developed a new dataset of coal mines. The researchers found that fields and mines that have already been developed would lead to 936bn tonnes of COwhen fully exploited and burned. That is 25 years of global emissions at today’s rate – the world’s scientists agree emissions must fall by half by 2030. The researchers calculated that 40% of developed fossil fuels must stay in the ground to have a 50-50 chance of global temperature rise stopping at 1.5C. Half the emissions would come from coal, a third from oil and a fifth from gas. The researchers found that almost 90% of developed reserves are located in just 20 countries, led by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US, followed by Iran, India, Indonesia, Australia and Canada. The research only considered projects where companies had made final investment decisions, that means committed to spending billions on building rigs and pipelines to extract the fossil fuels. A 2021 study, led by Daniel Welsby at University College London, assessed all known reserves and found 90% of coal and 60% of oil and gas must remain unexploited.
Greg Muttitt, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, was one of the leaders of the new research and said: “Halting new extraction projects is a necessary step, but still not enough to stay within our rapidly dwindling carbon budget. Some existing fossil fuel licences and production will need to be revoked and phased out early. Governments need to start tackling head-on how to do this in a fair and equitable way, which will require overcoming opposition from fossil fuel interests.”
Kelly Trout, at Oil Change International, the other lead author of the work, said: “Our study reinforces that building new fossil fuel infrastructure is not a viable response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The world has already tapped too much oil and gas.”
The study did not estimate how much CO could be removed from the atmosphere by technology in future. “These technologies are unproven at scale,” said Muttitt. “There’s a lot of talk about them, but we believe it would be a mistake to predicate achieving climate goals on these being delivered at a very large scale. We just don’t know whether it will be possible in terms of financing or governance.”
Maeve O’Connor, at the Carbon Tracker thinktank, the author of a new report, said: “Oil and gas companies are gambling on emissions [reducing] technologies that pose a huge risk to both investors and the climate. Most of these technologies are still at an early stage of development, with few large projects working at anything like the scale required by company goals, while solutions that involve tree planting require huge areas of land.”