OPINION: It's time to hold governments to task for fossil fuels they permit

by Ploy Achakulwisut | @_aploy | Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
Wednesday, 20 October 2021 15:55 GMT

A worker checks the fuel volumes on a train wagon near a tank of Brazil's state-run Petrobras oil company in Brasilia, Brazil, February 19, 2021. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Courts are telling oil, gas and coal companies to cut emissions from their products to curb climate change. Shouldn't governments also be responsible for projects they approve?

Ploy Achakulwisut is a lead author of the 2021 Production Gap Report and a scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute.The views expressed in this article, while informed by the insights of the report, are hers alone.

Earlier this year, a court in the Netherlands ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by almost half by 2030.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this ruling was the court’s recognition that Shell is responsible not only for the emissions directly stemming from its business activities, but also for those from the burning of its products.

For the first time, a court recognized that fossil fuel companies cannot claim to be innocent suppliers of their planet-warming products.

Which raises the question: Don’t governments who carry out and support fossil fuel production bear some responsibility too?

In fact, state-owned companies control  around half of global coal, oil, and gas production and account for 40% of investments in oil and gas worldwide.

Governments also routinely encourage and facilitate fossil fuel exploration and extraction by private companies through tax incentives and other subsidies; by issuing exploration licenses and drilling permits, by financing domestic and overseas projects; and by setting ambitious targets for future production in their national energy plans.

While a lot of attention has been paid to scrutinizing the level of global warming that countries’ emissions reduction pledges would lead us to, especially in the lead-up to the next UN climate summit, what’s gone on relatively unnoticed is how much the world’s governments intend to supply fossil fuels beyond what we can safely burn in the coming decades.

The Production Gap Report series, first launched in 2019 with the United Nations Environment Programme and published today in its third edition, aims to change that. The analysis, reflecting the latest national energy plans, shows that despite increasing warnings about the “production gap”, countries have done little to narrow it over the past three years.

Indeed, governments are still planning to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. The excess is particularly great with coal – around 240% – but it is also large for oil and gas: 60% and 70%, respectively. The production gap grows even wider by 2040.

These startling numbers are reinforced by government policies and narratives that belie their announcements of more ambitious climate action and net-zero commitments.

China is touting unconventional gas as “clean” fossil energy. Russia is branding its Arctic oil as “green”. Australia is promoting a “gas-fired recovery” from the COVID-19 recession. Norway and the UK intend to maximize economic recovery of their remaining oil and gas resources.

Saudi Arabia intends to be the “last man standing” among major oil producers. Brazil wants to become the fifth-largest oil and gas producer in the world, while the US will likely remain number one.

Meanwhile, fossil gas received more international public finance than any other energy source of energy in 2017–2019, averaging around US$16 billion per year, four times more than wind or solar. COVID-19 stimulus and recovery investments have also exacerbated the problem, with governments directing hundreds of billions of dollars into entrenching our reliance on fossil fuels.

The reality is that governments of major fossil fuel-producing countries are still not willing to acknowledge the fact that we need a rapid and sustained reduction of coal, oil and gas extraction as part of the global decarbonization effort to meet the Paris Agreement. They remain unwilling, even as climate damages are already widespread and intensifying in all parts of the world.

Even as renewable energy and electric vehicles have already or will soon overtake their fossil-fueled competitors in cost and appeal. Even as the window of opportunity for limiting long-term warming to 1.5°C is rapidly closing.

To date, most government action related to addressing the supply of fossil fuels has largely been restricted to promoting carbon capture and storage and minimizing methane emissions from extraction processes – which are themselves important steps, but vastly insufficient on their own for mitigating the climate crisis.

While some fossil fuel interests may leverage Europe’s record-high gas prices to wrongly blame the clean energy transition, what this situation truly underscores is the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – and vulnerability to their volatile prices and geopolitics – with smart policies and long-term planning.

This includes investing in energy storage facilities and more flexible energy systems alongside increasing renewable energy supply and energy efficiency, and protecting the public from energy price swings.

Because ultimately, it is energy that people demand, not fossil fuels. And as climate impacts intensify and spread to every region on our planet, so too are people’s demands for climate accountability: climate lawsuits against governments, fossil fuel companies, and financial actors now number in the thousands, including a recent challenge against the UK government for continuing to support oil and gas production in the North Sea.

What’s more, there is growing awareness that eliminating fossil fuels will also bring about important and immediate health and environmental benefits, such as avoiding millions of premature deaths from air pollution, protecting local communities and ecosystems in extraction “sacrifice zones”, and reducing plastic pollution and radioactive waste.

Some governments are now starting to place bans and restrictions on fossil fuel exploration and extraction, with Costa Rica and Denmark spearheading efforts to coordinate an international phase-out of fossil fuel production. Major fossil fuel-producing countries need to get on board.

As this year’s Production Gap Report makes clear, there is no time to waste. If these countries want to show they’re serious about meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, they need to pair their emission reduction commitments with clear, transparent plans to wind down fossil fuel production.

 

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