Nations that have amassed vast amounts of wealth from fossil fuels over centuries are unwilling to give it up – when the wealth could be used to fund the transition to cleaner energy
Fossil fuels are the largest driver of climate breakdown. They are responsible for 86% of the carbon emissions released into our atmosphere this decade. Without explicitly addressing fossil fuel production, governments are skating round a huge elephant in the room.
It’s like trying to address a pandemic without talking about the virus.
Despite the deluge of net zero pledges in the build up to COP26, new fossil fuel production could take global heating way beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement.
According to the most recent data, governments are planning to produce 57% more oil, 71% more gas and 240% more coal than is consistent with a 1.5°C target by 2030. To even have half a chance of keeping 1.5°C alive, at least 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal must remain in the ground, never to be burnt. Our survival is worth better odds than a coin toss.
But it is nations that have amassed vast amounts of wealth from fossil fuels, over centuries, that are unwilling to give up their fossil fuelled privilege, ignoring overwhelming evidence that we need to phase out fossil fuels rapidly. Many of these nations are also the loudest and proudest self-declared climate leaders. They talk the talk on reducing domestic emissions, while driving global emissions growth through continued fossil fuel production and exports.
Some of the countries most guilty for this offense are the “Fossil Fuelled 5” – Australia, Norway, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. This is a wealthy group of countries that are burning our collective future.
Coal, oil and gas production must fall globally by 69%, 31% and 28% respectively between now and 2030 to keep 1.5°C alive.
The Fossil Fuelled 5, however, are set to increase oil and gas production by 33% and 27% by 2030. While coal production amongst these countries is set to drop, it will drop by only 30% – less than half of what is needed to stop temperatures breaching 1.5°C.
Underlying the gap between rhetoric and action on fossil fuel production from these five is a deeply rooted failure to deliver climate justice.
These five nations benefit from fossil-fuelled growth. While continuously growing their fossil fuel empire, they have inadvertently locked other nations into a dependency on polluting fuels.
Australia, for instance, is the second largest coal exporter and the largest gas exporter in the world. In 2020, 42% of all Norwegian exports were oil and gas. Historically, the US is responsible for 20% of all emissions since 1850.
Wealthy nations have the capacity and obligation to do their fair share and phase out fossil fuels faster than their peers, starting immediately. They must shoulder the financial burden for countries and communities that did the least to create this crisis, so the most affected people and areas may adapt to the impacts they are experiencing right now.
The wealth that fossil fuels have created for these five nations could be used to transition entire economies away from polluting fuels towards the clean technologies and energy sources of the future.
Their economies are also incredibly diversified meaning that they are not solely reliant on fossil fuels for future prosperity. In other words, they have the wealth and capacity to move markets and transition fossil fuel industry workers with relatively limited disruption, but they still continue to approve pipelines, grant subsidies and pass out licenses.
Instead, they must be doing the exact opposite: halt further licensing, phase out existing extraction, end financial support for fossil fuel production without caveats and redirect that financial support toward helping developing countries move towards clean energy.
They should also formalise their climate leadership by joining initiatives such as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.
If we are serious about keeping 1.5°C alive and preventing the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we must address the root of our collective problem: fossil fuels.
For that, we need true policy leadership – not just press releases – from wealthy nations like the Fossil Fuelled 5 to put an end to fossil fuel expansion, start phasing out of existing stockpiles and jumpstart a just transition before it’s too late.
Freddie Daley is a research associate at the University of Sussex and a research coordinator at The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. He is the lead author for the report ‘The Fossil Fuelled 5’.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.