The world’s governments must wind down fossil fuel production by 6% per year to limit catastrophic warming. This means reducing the supply of fossil fuels as well as demand for them.
These are key findings from the 2020 Production Gap, a new report from the United Nations. The report also finds that the UK is in a strong position to transition from fossil fuels, and to assist other countries in doing so.
Just a day later the UK Government announced a new target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 68% on 1990 levels. But the target doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.
The COVID-19 effect
Following a dip in fossil fuel use in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries are planning to increase their fossil fuel production over the next decade.
Countries currently plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with keeping global heating below 1.5°C – the level that scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic impacts.
“The research is abundantly clear that we face severe climate disruption if countries continue to produce fossil fuels at current levels, let alone at their planned increases,” said Michael Lazarus, a lead author on the UN report. The research is similarly clear on the solution: government policies that decrease both the demand and supply for fossil fuels and support communities currently dependent on them.”
UK in a strong position to lead transition
The report strikes an encouraging note for the UK. It says that countries like ours that have lower dependency on fossil fuel production are well primed not only to decarbonise our own economies — with limited macroeconomic effects and major co-benefits — but also to lead the global transition away from fossil fuel production.
More fossil-fuel-dependent countries and communities have been harder hit by the plunge in oil prices caused by the pandemic. The best route out of the crisis for these economies is to diversify beyond fossil fuels — and they will need international support to do so equitably.
The report also highlights how the UK is already taking some actions that can support a managed wind-down of fossil fuel production. For example, the UK government has ended overseas aid for coal mining and coal power plants, and the government-owned development finance institution the CDC Group will not make new investments in fossil fuel sub-sectors they have classified as misaligned with the Paris Climate Agreement.
UK Government announcement
On December 4th 2020 the UK Government announced a new plan to cut emissions by 68% on 1990 levels by 2030. This would be the “nationally determined contribution” by the UK to the Paris Agreement target. However a 200% cut on the 1990 levels is needed to make a fair contribution to global carbon cuts, given the UK’s historically high contribution to the global carbon load.
Leave oil and gas in the ground
The Weald Action Group says that to play its part in creating a safer and fairer world, the UK government must abandon its policy of maximising the economic recovery of its own oil and gas reserves. North Sea oil and gas extraction should be phased out, and new low-carbon jobs created for the workers.
And the government must urgently rewrite planning policies which are out of step with national climate goals and make it difficult for planning authorities to take a strong line against onshore oil and gas production.
Allowing planning authorities to continue giving the green light to fossil fuel developments – like the recent approval of 20 years of oil production at Horse Hill, which could release more than 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over a 20-year period – is inconsistent with our national net zero carbon emissions target, the climate emergency and the UN’s dire warning of the need to cut production by 6% a year.
For the UK, as for other countries, switching investment to energy efficiency, renewable energy and low-carbon infrastructure will be good for jobs, for people’s health, and for the climate.
Read the report: The Production Gap 2020
Read the Weald Action Group’s briefing: Why we don’t need more onshore oil in the UK