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Global fossil fuel extraction plans are double what we can safely burn

The Buckskin coal mine near Gillette, Wyoming

TANNEN MAURY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Countries around the world are planning to extract more than double the amount of fossil fuels permitted by the toughest climate change goal of the Paris Agreement, an analysis for the United Nations has found.

“Governments continue to plan for and support levels of fossil fuel production that are vastly in excess of what we can safely burn,” says Ploy Achakulwisut at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), which produced the Production Gap report.

The production gap is the mismatch between the amount of coal, oil and gas that government plans imply will be extracted in coming years, and the amount that needs to stay in the ground to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets of limiting warming to 1.5°C or “well below” 2°C.

In 2030, 240 per cent more coal, roughly 60 per cent more oil and around 70 per cent more gas will be produced than is allowed by the 1.5°C goal. Overall, 110 per cent more fossil fuels will be produced in 2030 than the 1.5°C target allows, with the figure 45 per cent for the 2°C goal.

The gap remains largely the same since the first version of the report was published in 2019, according to the update today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The covid-19 pandemic hasn’t significantly changed governments’ attitudes towards fossil fuel production. Since January 2020, governments have directed nearly $300 billion of public finance towards fossil fuel projects, more than they have to clean energy, the report finds.

“We’re not seeing the sustainable recovery we need to see happen,” says Michael Lazarus at SEI.

The report describes the government plans and projections for 15 key countries, including China, the US, the UK and Brazil, which together make up 77 per cent of fossil fuel production. The authors note that the UK government has promised to “extract every drop of oil and gas that it is economic to extract”, and in March chose to continue issuing new oil and gas licences.

Most governments’ climate plans to date have focused on reducing carbon emissions but without limiting how much fossil fuel they produce. However, there is a growing international movement pushing for the creation of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Costa Rica and Denmark have banned future oil and gas production and are hoping to build an alliance of countries to follow their lead.

“As countries increasingly commit to net-zero emissions by mid-century, they also need to recognise the rapid reduction in fossil fuel production that their climate targets will require,” says Måns Nilsson at SEI.

Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said governments must “step up” at the imminent COP26 climate summit in Glagsow and “close the fossil fuel production gap”.

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