Climate Action Should Target 'Carbon Bombs,' Says New Study

China, Russia, the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia are the countries with the most fossil fuel megaprojects.

Coal burning power plant with pollution on a cloudy day.

acilo / Getty Images

A new study has identified the 425 “carbon bombs” the world needs to defuse to keep climate change from spiraling out of control.

These coal, oil, and natural gas extraction projects made it into the list because they each could be responsible for at least 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions, more than enough to push the global average surface temperature to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would unleash devastating floods, droughts, and wildfires.

With the global average temperature rise already at 1.2 degrees C, the scientific community agrees that we only have a few more years to drastically reduce emissions—if we fail to do so, many climate change effects will be irreversible. 

The study argues we need to defuse these carbon bombs in order to guarantee a liveable world for future generations, especially those living in the global south, who are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. 

These projects are located all over the world, but China (141), Russia (41), the United States (28), Iran (24), and Saudi Arabia (23) are the countries with the most carbon bombs. 

The largest carbon bombs include oil and gas deposits in the Permian Basin in the U.S., the Montney Play shale gas deposits in Canada, and the Yamal Megaproject in Russia. 

Most carbon bombs are already in operation, accounting for about 45% of global oil and gas production and 25% of global coal output. 

However, about 40% of them have yet to start production, the study says, adding that the combined carbon emissions of these planned projects are estimated at 419 gigatons. However, scientists say that to avoid a climate breakdown, the world needs to cut emissions by 1.4 gigatons a year by 2050 and, in order to do that, the International Energy Agency last year said no new fossil fuel projects should be built.

Carbon Bombs World Map

Kjell Kühne / LINGO

Climate Action

The authors propose activists target carbon bombs and pressure national and local governments to cancel them. Carbon bombs could be canceled outright or be put on “harvest mode,” meaning they would gradually cease production amid a lack of new investments.

“I don't expect governments to say ‘oh we’re going to defuse carbon bombs’ but I do expect it to be easier for the climate movement to argue against these projects and more difficult for government actors to defend them, promote them, and subsidize them as it is happening the world over,” said lead author Kjell Kühne, a researcher at the University of Leeds School of Geography and the head of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative, told Treehugger.

“I think the young generation is not going to sit and watch the house burn down. I think that more and more activism will rise to challenge these projects,” he added.

Some efforts to leave fossil fuels underground, like Ecuador’s Yasuni ITT project, have failed but some have been successful. 

Belize, Costa Rica, Ireland, Greenland, and New Zealand have restricted or banned fossil fuel exploration, and earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles banned new oil and gas wells and said it will phase out old ones over five years.

But, by and large, major oil-producing countries have not even floated the idea of banning fossil fuel extraction, something that Kühne says “needs to be part of the conversation sooner rather than later.”

Even though climate change activism is not strong in Middle East nations, nor in China or Russia, carbon bombs in these areas could be disrupted by applying pressure from abroad.

“Many countries are now discovering that there are many ways to interfere with Russia. I see the war in Ukraine as a test case to figure out how to disrupt carbon bombs. We could put together a toolbox that would allow us to disrupt carbon projects in other countries,” Kühne says.

This toolbox could include a variety of actions, such as blocking finance for carbon bombs or boycotting products made using energy from these projects, says Kühne.

In the case of the U.S., the biggest problem is that “the fossil fuel industry has captured the political system,” the researcher said.

Whereas the European Union in recent weeks has taken steps to drastically reduce oil and gas imports from Russia and promote renewables, the U.S. has doubled down on fossil fuels by ordering the release of crude from the country’s strategic reserves, announcing a plan to boost natural gas exports, and reopening federal lands to fossil fuel extraction. 

“Part of the challenge is the unwillingness of most people to question the political system that keeps such dysfunctional and life-threatening structures in place, but I think there is a huge potential in the U.S. in the entrepreneurial spirit of American people to work out solutions and find ways to turn the situation around,” says Kühne.

In addition to canceling these projects, the world would also need to slash the demand for fossil fuels, meaning that we need to phase out gas vehicles and power plants that burn coal and natural gas to produce electricity. Other changes, like better insulating homes, moving away from industrial agriculture, and embracing low-carbon lifestyles will also help to cut the demand for fossil fuels, Kühne says.

“Nobody needs to be flying around on airplanes for vacation, nobody needs to be buying stupidly designed stuff that breaks down after a few times.”

View Article Sources
  1. Kühne, Kjell, et al. "“Carbon Bombs” - Mapping Key Fossil Fuel Projects." Energy Policy, vol 166, 2022, p. 112950., doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2022.112950

  2. "Carbon Bombs." Leave it in the Ground.

  3. "Global Carbon Budget." Global Carbon Project.