New Report Calls for Rich Countries to Cut Oil and Coal Production First and Fast

Rich nations must phase out fossil fuels by 2034 or the world will blow through 1.5 degrees.

Oil refinery in Los Angeles

Halbergman / Getty Images

All nations have to equally share the pain of getting off fossil fuels if we are going to keep the world from heating less than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), but according to a new report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K., some nations are more equal than others. Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, notes:

"Responding to the ongoing climate emergency requires a rapid shift away from a fossil fuel economy, but this must be done fairly. There are huge differences in the ability of countries to end oil and gas production, while maintaining vibrant economies and delivering a just transition for their citizens. We have developed a schedule for phasing out oil and gas production that—with sufficient support for developing countries—meets our very challenging climate commitments and does so in a fair way."

The timing of the report, "Phaseout Pathways for Fossil Fuel Production," is inauspicious. The very first paragraph states that "there is no capacity in the carbon budget for opening up new production facilities of any kind, whether coal mines, oil wells or gas terminals. A transition based on principles of equity requires wealthy, high-emitting nations to phase out all oil and gas production by 2034 while the poorest nations have until 2050 to end production."

top 33 producers

Kevin Anderson et al

The main concept of the report is that wealthy nations produce a lot of fossil fuels, but these are a small part of their overall economies. So, the world's largest producer of oil and gas, the United States, doesn't even show up on the table of the top 33 producers by share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Neither does Canada, the fourth-largest producer. As the report notes,

"Some larger producers have such diverse and vibrant economies that the oil and gas revenue is arguably more of a 'nice to have' (for example, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and even the USA). Still others are large producers with oil and gas revenue forming a major proportion of their economy, but with very high non-oil-and-gas income, too (for example, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Norway)."

However, it is likely that if you told Premier Jason Kenney of Alberta, the main producing province in Canada, that oil and gas revenue was "nice to have," he would not be pleased; 25.8% of the province's GDP comes from oil and gas extraction, putting it up there between Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates. And the oil industry is, in fact, planning to increase production.

The problem of economic disparities within countries is just one of the issues. Another is the unfortunate timing of the report, in the middle of a war when everyone's priorities suddenly changed from cutting back on oil and gas production to cranking it up as quickly as possible. As American energy secretary Jennifer Granholm recently told an energy industry gathering in Houston, as quoted in Politico:

"We are on war footing. That means [crude oil] releases from the strategic reserves all around the world. And that means you producing more right now if and when you can. I hope your investors are saying this to you as well. In this moment of crisis, we need more supply."

And while the war may be over at some point soon, the demand for oil won't be, with Granholm telling the producers:

"But we are under no illusion that every American is going to get an EV or heat pump tomorrow or next month or next year. This is a transition. We are pragmatic [about] what that means. It doesn’t happen overnight ... Right now we need oil and gas production to rise to meet current demand."

Professor Anderson is certainly aware of the war, noting in the press release that the research was completed prior to the invasion of Ukraine. "But the resulting high energy prices also remind us that oil and gas are volatile global commodities, and economies that depend on them will continue to face repeated shocks and disruption. The efficient and sensible use of energy combined with a rapid shift to renewables will increase energy security, build resilient economies, and help avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

The report also dismisses everyone's favorite solutions to the problem: Carbon capture and storage has "a long history of over-promising and underdelivering" and is too little, too late. "Nature-based solutions" like planting trees won't work because "biospheric carbon is not interchangeable with fossil carbon." So, carbon dioxide removal won't save us.

The depressing thing about reading this report is that you know that every word of it is probably true, but that nobody is going to pay any attention to it because it is so politically unpalatable. 2034 is closer through the windshield than the Kyoto Protocol is in the rearview mirror, and it is hard to imagine the major oil-producing countries doing any of this in 12 years.

And wait, there's more. Not only do the wealthy countries have to take their hit on GDP and give up oil and gas production (not to mention building all those electric cars and heat pumps), but because those poorer countries are so much more dependent on oil revenues, "an equitable transition will require wealthy high-emitting nations make substantial and ongoing financial transfers to poorer nations to facilitate their low-carbon development, against a backdrop of dangerous and increasing climate impacts."

The report claims that "wealthy nations that are major producers, typically remain wealthy even once the oil and gas revenue is removed," noting that oil and gas revenue contributes only 8% of the U.S. GDP. But its influence is everywhere, and it lubricates everything. The political and economic impact is a lot more than 8%.

As Vaclav Smil has written, the entire world economy is based on the incredible concentration of energy that we get from fossil fuels and their conversion into wealth. "This transformation brought enormous advances in agricultural productivity and crop yields; it has resulted first in rapid industrialization and urbanization, in the expansion and acceleration of transportation, and in an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities." That's hard to give up.

Professor Kevin Anderson knows all this; he is pretty clear in his tweets. In a revealing interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP), he is asked, "If rich nation fossil fuel producers must phase out production by 2034, isn't that another way of saying that staying under 1.5C or even 2C is no longer possible?" His response:

"As academics, that is not the question we asked. What we're saying is that this is what a 1.5C timeline would look like. Are these the sorts of changes society will choose to make? Is it achievable within the current political point of view? As of now, there's no evidence that's the case. No country—the EU, the UK, Sweden, the US—is anywhere near the commitments that we need to make."

Professor Anderson concludes: "Leaders have to wake up, smell the coffee, and realise what we need to be doing. Right now, we are likely to fail. But if we don't try, we are guaranteed to fail."

And looking at Trudeau, Biden, Johnson, Scholtz, at all the leaders of wealthy countries, we know what choice they will make because they really don't have one.

View Article Sources
  1. Calverly, Dan and Anderson, Kevin. "Phaseout Pathways for Fossil Fuel Production Within Paris-Compliant Carbon Budgets." University of Manchester. 22 March 2022.