“Keep it in the ground” has long been a favorite slogan of the environmental movement aimed at the coal, oil and gas industries, and the catchphrase is based in science.
For years, scientists have warned that without shifting energy consumption from fossil fuels to renewable sources, the planet will experience potentially disastrous levels of global warming.
But a new report shows that many of the world’s governments are not heeding their calls, and it’s jeopardizing global efforts to contain the climate crisis.
In fact, countries are on track to produce far more fossil fuels than what scientists say is allowed in order to limit global warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius, according to a major new United Nations’ (UN) analysis titled “The Production Gap.”
“The discrepancy between national policies – that is, climate change policies and fossil fuel production policies – highlights that there is much more that needs to be done both at the country level and in international climate negotiations to pay a sharpened and increased focus on fossil fuels,” said Niklas Hagelberg, the UN Environment Program’s climate change coordinator.
Exactly how far out of line is fossil fuel production with goals set to limit global warming?
Right now, governments are expected to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than what scientists say is permissible to keep the planet from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and 50% more than what we can burn to keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Of the fossil fuels, the report found that coal production is the furthest off track – the world is expected to produce 150% more coal in 2030 than is allowed to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees.
The United Nations Environment Program’s previous annual reports have served as a report card showing whether countries are hitting their benchmarks for reducing emissions.
This report is the first to look at the supply side of the energy and climate equation.
It examines whether plans for future fossil fuel production are in line with global pledges to reduce the release of heat-trapping gases.
The findings suggest the actions of many countries don’t match their words: While some say they plan to decrease their emissions, many are still building and investing in new fossil fuel projects.
The authors propose several policy options to rein in production, such as placing limits on exploration and extraction of new fuel sources and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.
“A lot of extraction projects wouldn’t be economical without government support, so phasing out this support will make oil and gas uneconomical, and will level the playing field for renewable energy,” said Ivetta Gerasimchuk, a lead for sustainable energy supplies at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Geneva and one of the authors of the report.
The report highlights the initiatives of several countries – such as Belize, Costa Rica, France, Denmark and New Zealand – that have already enacted partial or total bans on new oil or gas projects.
Others, such as Germany and Spain, have taken action to stop coal mining.
These findings come at a pivotal time for the future of the planet.
Under the rules of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, countries are supposed to increase their commitments to reduce emissions of planet-warming gases every five years. Countries are expected to submit the first of these updated pledges by the end of 2020.
Early next month, delegates from around the world plan to gather in Madrid for the next round of UN climate talks, and these revised pledges, which are due next year, will be a key focus of the summit.
So far, 68 countries have stated their intent to enhance their commitments, but those countries represent just 8% of global emissions.
The Madrid summit also comes as one of the key contributors to climate change – the United States – has signaled it is stepping away from international efforts to stem the crisis.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced it had begun the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, despite reports produced by the US government showing climate change will shrink the economy and lead to thousands of deaths.