Although scientists continue to insist that the planet must break free from its dependence on oil, gas and coal to effectively combat climate change, hydrocarbon development projects continue to emerge. Several countries, cities and NGOs are calling for a non-proliferation treaty on fossil fuels.
In the next few years, multinationals such as Qatar Energy, Gazprom, Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, Petrobras, Turkmengaz, TotalEnergies, Chevron and Shell plan to open new gas and oil production sites. These projects alone could strain the carbon budget available to limit the effects of global warming.
In a report unveiled on Wednesday at COP27, the American NGO Oil Change International revealed that new fossil fuel projects approved or in the process of approval between 2022 and 2025 could lead to the emission of 70 billion tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere during the course of their operation. Projects approved in 2022 alone are responsible for 11 billion tons of CO2, the equivalent of China’s annual emissions.
One of the projects targeted by the NGO is the TotalEnergies oil extraction megaproject in Uganda, which should be operational by 2025. The French company plans to drill 400 wells and export the oil via the huge EACOP pipeline. These two projects combined will be responsible for the emission of more than 34 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
“About 90% of CO2 emissions are related to fossil fuels”
However, for several years, scientists have been hammering that the only way to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 – the goal set by the European Union – is to break out of our dependence on oil, gas and coal. “About 90% of CO2 emissions emitted by humans are linked to fossil fuels”, explains Jean-Marie Bréon, climatologist at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences. The remaining 10% is linked to deforestation.
According to the latest IPCC report, to prevent global temperatures from exceeding the fateful 1.5°C mark, we must reduce our consumption of coal by 95%, oil by 60% and gas by 45% by 2050, compared to 2019 levels. In 2021, the International Energy Agency called for an immediate halt to investment in new oil and gas facilities. Since then, many institutions, led by the UN, have regularly reiterated these instructions.
“Unfortunately, fossil fuels still represent 80% of the global energy mix today. We are not succeeding in accelerating the energy transition,” says Bréon. “And each new fossil fuel project takes us off course and reduces our chances of staying below 1.5°C.”
“We agree with the International Energy Agency on the 2050 target […] But our world lives on fossil fuels, and believing that we are going to change the system overnight does not work,” Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of TotalEnergies, told France Info during COP27. “If we stopped building new oil and gas deposits, there would be a natural decline in production of four to five percent per year. But the demand for energy does not decrease by four to five percent. So if we stopped doing our job, there wouldn’t be enough production, prices would keep going up and everyone would be angry.”
According to environmental protection associations, these arguments are based on a “short-termist logic”.
“Climate scientists tell us that we only have three years left to reverse the trend, so we must act now,” says Lucie Pinson, director of the NGO Reclaim Finance and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the so-called Nobel Prize. . for ecology. “We know that using all the fossil fuel reserves already in production would take us beyond 1.5°C of warming. Not only do no new gas, oil and coal projects need to be built, but we also need to start phasing out existing sites.”
Pinson believes that the main objective is to stop and prevent the implementation of new “carbon bombs”. The term “carbon bombs”, coined by a team of scientists in a study published in May 2021, refers to the largest fossil fuel extraction projects in the world. “These are all coal, oil and gas infrastructures that could emit more than a billion tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime,” explains Kjell Kühne, the study’s lead author.
Kühne and his team have identified a total of 425 “carbon bombs” in 48 countries – 195 oil and gas projects and 230 coal mines. The following countries have more than 10: China, Russia, United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Australia, India, Qatar, Canada, and Iraq.
“They are single-handedly leading us to climate catastrophe,” he says. “Taken to their logical conclusion, they are double our global carbon budget.” These include huge coal mining projects in China, oil sands projects in Canada, the Red Hill project in Australia, the Hambach and Garzweiler mines in Germany, and the EACOP project in East Africa.
“In 2019, 45% of global oil and gas production and 25% of global coal production came from these carbon bombs,” Kühne explains. “But 40% of our list is made up of sites still in the works,” he continues. “Governments, institutions and companies see it as a list of sites not to invest in. Climate activists see it as a list of projects to mobilize against.”
For several years, environmentalists have stepped up efforts to stop fossil fuel investments by organizing demonstrations and resorting to legal actions. For example, Reclaim Finance, alongside other NGOs, took the first step towards filing a complaint against BNP Paribas at the end of October 2022. They gave notice to the first French bank, shareholder of TotalEnergies, to stop financing the development of fossil fuels.
In June 2022, young Europeans filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against 12 countries – the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Greece, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Luxembourg and Sweden – which have signed the Energy Charter Treaty, deemed too lenient on fossil fuels. Several of them, including France, have since announced their withdrawal from the treaty.
A non-proliferation treaty?
Faced with the urgency of the situation, other voices at COP 27 in Egypt called for a non-proliferation treaty on fossil fuels to be established.
“Launched in 2020, the idea is today supported by the European Parliament, the WHO, around 70 cities including Paris, London, Lima and Calcutta, 100 Nobel laureates, 3,000 scientists and 1,800 civil society organisations. civil society”, explains Alex Rafalowicz, head of the initiative. director. So far, only the state of Vanuatu has provided official support. He was joined in early November by Tuvalu, the first state to speak out on the issue during official climate negotiations.
This treaty, based on the same model as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and which Rafalowicz hopes to see drawn up within two years, is intended to complement the Paris agreements. The reference text, signed in 2015 and drafted with the aim of combating global warming, does not mention fossil fuels.
“The topic was not clearly discussed until COP 26 last year,” Rafalowicz said. “Until then, we only talked about reducing CO2 emissions and developing renewable energies, without really pointing out the main cause of global warming.” In fact, participating nations formally pledged to reduce their coal consumption for the first time at COP26 in Glasgow. Fifteen countries, including France, have also promised to stop their foreign investment in “fossil energy projects without carbon capture systems”.
“The goal is to stop the expansion and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and then gradually reduce production,” Rafalowicz said. “But of course it has to be done on a fair basis. The most developed countries have to help the most vulnerable. Energy has to be accessible to everyone.”
In addition to this treaty, several States formed at COP26 a coalition “Beyond Oil and Gas” (BOGA) to promote the transition away from fossil fuels. But a year later, the alliance, co-chaired by Denmark and Costa Rica and including France, is struggling to recruit members. Fiji and Chile are the only ones to have joined as “friendly” countries, while the state of Washington in the northwestern United States is now a full member.
In the context of the energy crisis linked to the war in Ukraine, which has led some countries to revert to coal and gas, the question seems more difficult than ever. No less than 636 lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry were present at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, which represents an increase of more than 25% compared to last year. NGOs see this as a sign that the Climate Conference may also have served as a front for some gas contracts.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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