By Dana Drugmand
If countries produce all the fossil fuels they currently have planned, the world has no chance of limiting global warming to the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, a new report finds. That conclusion could bolster the cases being pursued around the world to hold governments accountable for their policies’ impact on the climate.
According to the report published Wednesday, conducted by the UN Environment Program and international research organizations, nations are currently on track to allow production of 50 percent more fossil fuels by 2030 than can be exploited to hold global temperature rise below 2 degrees C. If the temperature rise is to be limited to 1.5 degrees C—the more ambitious aim of the Paris Agreement—current policies would lead to 120 percent more fossil fuels than can be burned. The report, called the “Production Gap,” is the first to analyze whether governments’ plans for fossil fuel production are consistent with Paris climate goals.
“This report shows, for the first time, just how big the disconnect is between Paris temperature goals and countries’ plans and policies for coal, oil, and gas production,” said Michael Lazarus, lead author of the report and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) US Center. This “production gap,” according to researchers, is even greater than the global emissions gap, which is the disconnect between current pledges for emissions reductions and what would be necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. The report finds that current national climate policies, however well intentioned, are insufficient given plans to expand fossil fuel production.
“Indeed, though many governments plan to decrease their emissions, they are signaling the opposite when it comes to fossil fuel production, with plans and projections for expansion. This hinders the collective ability of countries to meet global climate goals,” the report’s executive summary states. Production plans were analyzed in 10 significant fossil fuel producing countries: Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Climate law experts say the new report provides further evidence for the need to hold governments accountable in court.
“Every government has a fundamental duty to protect its people from harm, including the foreseeable impacts of the climate emergency,” said Kristin Casper, senior legal counsel for strategic litigation at Greenpeace. “The ‘Production Gap Report’ highlights the reality of governments falling short of their obligations to cut down fossil fuel production as we face a planetary climate crisis. The people have a right to hold governments accountable for failing to fulfill their duties. Governments around the globe are on notice.”
Greenpeace is currently supporting climate cases against governments in France, Germany, Switzerland and Norway. The lawsuit against the Norwegian government specifically challenges the government’s continued licensing of offshore oil and gas production. Norway argued in an appeal hearing last week it is not violating the Paris Agreement with its continued production of petroleum, an argument that contradicts the Production Gap analysis.
“We are going to be seeing people taking this analysis into their cases against governments around the world. People will be taking this scientific analysis into court every time their government tries to approve opening up some new oil and gas reserves, or permit a new pipeline,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.
He said that while environmental organizations have been making the case to curb fossil fuel production for years, it is significant that an institution like the UN is now embracing this position. “We now have a United Nations report which is for the first time acknowledging that to address the threat of climate change we have to address not only the demand side, but the fossil fuel supplies that are the primary driver of the crisis,” Muffett said. UN Secretary General António Guterres commented on the report on Twitter, saying it is “time to end the age of fossil fuels.”
ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Exxon and other fossil fuel companies are already facing climate lawsuits. Shell is facing one in its home country of the Netherlands for refusing to cut back its petroleum production.
“I think the Production Gap report is going to change the legal landscape for producers of fossil fuels,” Muffett said.
“Here in the U.S., with the ongoing vacuum of federal leadership on climate, we’re likely to see more climate liability litigation, investor-led efforts to strengthen climate risk disclosure, community-driven protests, and many other actions to hold major fossil fuel companies accountable to their stated support for the Paris agreement,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Marco Simons, general counsel at EarthRights International, said studies like these could also heighten legal pressure on fossil fuel producers.
“While this report focuses on countries, it is also entirely possible that fossil fuel companies will face increasing scrutiny, both in terms of their liability for climate harms and their liability to investors,” Simons said. “Their valuation is based in part on their reserves, but as this report shows, production needs to be substantially cut back, such that most of the current reserves will never be used—and may be worthless.”
Muffett also pointed to the risk of stranded assets and said financial institutions that finance fossil fuel expansion could also be liable.
“If you’re investing in these projects in light of this evidence about the production gap, there are really only three scenarios,” he said. “One is that you do not actually expect that the oil and gas you’re producing is going to be used and sold, in which case you could be misrepresenting the risk to investors. Or, you fully intend that the oil and gas you’re producing will be used and sold, notwithstanding its clear contributions to worsening the climate crisis. That has significant implications with respect to all sorts of legal liabilities. And then a final prospect is that you simply don’t care, and that looks a lot like willful negligence.”
The Production Gap report follows another recent report by the think tank Carbon Tracker, which found that major oil and gas companies must slash production by more than a third by 2040 if the world is to limit warming below 2 degrees C. These reports underscore the need for fossil fuel producers and governments to rethink their current expansion plans.
“This production gap report demonstrates that we already have more coal, oil and gas than we can sustain in a 1.5 degree world,” said Muffett.
Måns Nilsson, SEI’s executive director, put it more bluntly: “We’re in a deep hole—and we need to stop digging.”