SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Nations will likely burn through their remaining carbon budget in less than a decade if they do not significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, a new study shows, causing the world to blow past a critical warming threshold and triggering catastrophic climate impacts.
The Global Carbon Budget, an annual assessment of how much the world can afford to emit to stay within its warming targets, found that greenhouse gas pollution will hit a record high this year, with much of the growth coming from a 1 percent increase in carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Emissions in both the United States and India have increased compared to last year, while China and the European Union will probably report small declines, according to the report.
To have a chance of keeping global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius, humanity can release no more than 380 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent over the coming decades — an amount equal to about nine years of current emissions, the report says. Avoiding warming beyond 1.5C will require the world to curb emissions by about 1.4 billion tons per year, comparable to how much emissions shrank in 2020 as a result of the economic slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet even as scientists warn of the world’s dangerous trajectory, leaders here at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, have advocated for natural gas as a “transition fuel” that would ease the world’s switch from fossil energy to renewables. At least four new gas projects have been reported or announced in the past 10 days, with several African countries pledging to expand export capacity and supply more fuel to Europe. Representatives from both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the host of next year’s climate conference, have made clear they view COP27 as an opportunity to promote gas.
This rhetoric has alarmed scientists and activists who say expanding natural gas production could harm vulnerable communities and push the planet toward a hotter, hellish future.
“Gas is not a low carbon energy source,” said Julia Pongratz, a climate scientist at the University of Munich and an author of the Global Carbon Budget report released Friday.
Pongratz said it is still technically possible for the world to avoid temperature rise beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius — which scientists say is needed to avoid disastrous extreme weather, rampant hunger and disease and the collapse of ecosystems on which humanity depends.
But if fossil fuel use does not dramatically decline, “in a few years we will no longer be able to say it’s possible,” Pongraz said. “And then we would need to look back and say we could have done it and we didn’t. How do we explain that to our kids?”
Yet activists say they are also encouraged by other countries’ growing willingness to embrace a phaseout of fossil fuels. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu this week joined Vanuatu in calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Kenyan President William Ruto declared that his country would not develop its hydrocarbon deposits but instead invest only in clean energy. Norway’s state owned energy company on Thursday put a hold on plans to develop a new Arctic oil field.
The gas study by the research group Climate Action Tracker shows that planned projects would more than double the world’s current liquefied natural gas capacity, generating roughly 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent between now and 2050.
According to the Energy Information Administration, burning gas for energy emits about half as much carbon dioxide equivalent as burning coal. But liquefying natural gas for transport and other parts of the gas production process can lead to leaks of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas.
The planned expansion goes beyond what is needed to replace interrupted Russian fuel supplies, the study said. And it runs counter to findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency that there can be no new gas, oil and coal development if humanity wants to prevent dangerous warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“The world seems to have overreached in its bid to respond to the energy crisis,” said climate scientist Bill Hare, founder of Climate Action Tracker partner organization Climate Analytics and an author of the report.
The only way for these projects to be compatible with the 1.5C target, Hare said, would be for them to close before the end of their useful lives, creating a risk of turning billion-dollar facilities into “stranded assets.”
Both reports stand in contrast to the way fossil fuels — especially natural gas — have been discussed at COP27.
Nations made history at last year’s conference when they agreed on the need to phase down coal and fossil fuels — the first time an explicit reference to the main drivers of warming was included in a COP decision text. On the sidelines of that conference, a group of more than 20 countries pledged to stop public investments in overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of this year. But now some of those same countries are backsliding amid a frantic hunt for alternatives to Russian gas.
This week United Arab Emirates president and upcoming COP host Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan told leaders that the UAE would continue providing oil and gas “for as long as the world is in need.” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called for a brief increase in fossil fuel production, saying “without energy security there is no energy transition.” Tanzanian energy minister January Makamba announced a $40 billion new LNG export project. And although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly said “there must not be a worldwide renaissance of fossil fuels,” his country has also encouraged nations like Algeria and Senegal to expand their gas production.
On Friday, a group of Republican lawmakers argued at the conference that demonizing fossil fuels is not a productive way to fight climate change.
Meanwhile, an analysis of conference attendees by the advocacy group Global Witness found a sharp rise in representatives of the fossil fuel industry since last year’s COP. Some 200 people connected to oil, gas and coal are included in country delegations, the group said on Thursday, and another 236 are here with trade groups and other nongovernmental organizations.
“I’m really worried,” said Lorraine Chiponda, an environmental justice activist from Zimbabwe who co-facilitates a coalition of advocacy groups called Don’t Gas Africa. “This is supposed to be a space to discuss climate solutions, but instead it’s being used to drive fossil fuels.”
African nations are among the most vulnerable to climate change, and can’t afford to build out new fossil fuel infrastructure that will continue to heat the planet, she said. Local communities have also suffered as gas projects displace residents and generate air pollution.
European leaders’ justification that new gas projects are a short term solution to an energy crisis rings hollow, Chiponda added, given that some 600 million people in Africa have no access to electricity.
“Is that not a crisis?” she asked.
Catherine Abreu, director of the nonprofit Destination Zero, which calls for an end to fossil fuel use, said the push for gas was intertwined with the other issue dominating discussions in Sharm el-Sheikh: developing countries’ demand for more financial support from wealthier nations as they cope with the consequences of climate change.
Developing nations’ push for a loss and damage fund, through which large emitters would pay for irreversible climate harms like Pakistan’s recent floods, faces an uphill battle amid skepticism from the United States and other industrialized countries.
Meanwhile, wealthy nations have still not fulfilled an overdue promise to provide $100 billion to help vulnerable areas reduce emissions and adapt to warming that’s already underway. According to Climate Action Tracker, which also rates countries’ climate finance pledges, every rich country’s funding promises are insufficient.
“There’s such an imperative on investment in this region, and the only kind of investment that is available is for oil and gas,” Abreu said.
That tension was evident at a meeting of African leaders Tuesday, where African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina declared that “Africa needs gas” to develop.
“We want to make sure we have access to electricity,” he said, as the room broke out in applause. “We don’t want to become the museum of poverty in the world.”
Pongratz, one of the Global Carbon Budget report authors, hoped the findings would inform negotiators as the high-stakes, highly technical portion of the climate conference begins.
“We have depicted the urgency of the problem,” she said. “No one has the excuse of not knowing these numbers.”