A new report found that time is rapidly dwindling for countries to phase out fossil fuel extraction and avoid some of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Like seriously rapidly.
Researchers at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research found that rich countries have until 2034 to stop all oil and gas production. The findings also show that waiting on carbon dioxide removal technology is a dangerous game.
Even if rich countries get their act together over the next 12 years, the analysis finds that it gives the world a roughly 50% chance of avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, a key climate threshold. Ending fossil fuel extraction in rich countries in the next seven years gives us a 67% chance for a decently habitable climate. The report, which was not peer reviewed, comes a year after an International Energy Agency report found that new fossil fuel exploration needs to stop [checks notes] this year.
This is just the latest analysis that should — but probably will not, if history is any guide — light a crackling fire under the butts of world leaders who have dithered on implementing policies to actually reduce carbon emissions and end the use of fossil fuels. That's especially true of wealthy countries, which have outsize sway on international climate talks and are historically the biggest carbon polluters.
The report also throws cold water on carbon dioxide removal being enough to save us. CDR options take many forms, including nature-based solutions like reforestation and negative emissions technologies that pull carbon directly from the air. But none are an appropriate substitute for “deep and immediate cuts in the production of all fossil fuels,” the report finds.
The authors are explicit on this point, saying “this report eschews the substitution of deep cuts in emissions today for CDR and [carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS] tomorrow.” There is no space whatsoever for opening up new fossil fuel production facilities (as the U.S. is likely to do, given the number of oil and gas leases that have been purchased but remain unused).
Even so, the research finds that CDR has formed an increasingly large role in countries’ climate plans, as time has gotten shorter and emissions have continued to increase. But negative emissions technologies are largely speculative at this point. As the authors put it elegantly, “Negative emissions technology schemes remain at the scale of small pilot schemes. Their deployment at planetary-scale is as yet hard to imagine.”
The authors by no means say these technologies will have no role at all in mitigating warming; in fact, they write that there is reason for research and development on the subject, and even large-scale testing and deployment, assuming “designs meet stringent ecological and social sustainability criteria.” Most climate modeling scenarios include some form of CDR to keep the planet in relatively decent shape.
But ultimately, they find, it is simply too soon to rely on negative emissions technologies, as much as we may wish they could serve as a silver bullet. For now, there is simply no substitution for — say it with me — phasing out fossil fuel extraction, and fast.