Fossil fuels: Is the world on track for moving past coal, oil and gas production?
Scientists, economists and Indigenous activists met in Oxford in September to discuss a challenge central to solving climate change: how can the world rid itself of fossil fuels?
The event was the latest in a string of scientific conferences examining how to address fossil fuel supply – in addition to demand.
Amid rebounding global emissions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts discussed where the world stood on meeting its climate goals, which regions are likely to invest heavily in new fossil-fuel projects and continued misinformation from the oil and gas industry.
The conference also offered a platform to those most affected by both climate change and the construction of new fossil fuel projects, including Indigenous land defenders from Ecuador, Colombia and South Africa.
Carbon Brief was at the two-day event to take in the wide-ranging talks and has summarised the key takeaways.
- Fossil fuels and climate targets
- Further fossil fuel expansion
- Oil majors, greenwashing and misinformation
- Global movements for ending fossil fuels
- Climate justice and local resistance
- Ensuring a ‘just transition’
Fossil fuels and climate targets
Many of the talks at the conference considered the question of fossil fuels in the international arena.
This included how countries are accounting for coal, oil and gas in their climate plans under the Paris Agreement, and the impact that stringent targets are set to have on nations that rely heavily on revenue from producing fossil fuels.
The event opened with Christophe McGlade, head of the energy supply unit at the International Energy Agency (IEA), noting that the energy crisis currently facing the world poses “risks and perils for the energy transition” away from fossil fuels:
“We are in the first ever global energy crisis. It’s different from what happened in the 1970s, which mainly affected oil.”
He took aim at those who “misleadingly” blame the crisis on climate policies, saying this distracted from the “real culprit” – namely, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The more rapid deployment of clean energy, of efficiency measures, would have helped protect consumers,” he noted.
At #FFCC22 @TofMcGlade from @IEA begins with a simple point about the current unprecedented energy crisis: some people have tried to blame the situation on climate policies: “We need to be very clear – this is incorrect” pic.twitter.com/YgybUixlY1— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
He also pointed to the large shortfalls that currently exist in renewable energy funding – particularly in developing countries.
McGlade oversaw an influential IEA report published in 2021 which concluded that there is no place for new fossil fuel projects if the world’s energy sector is to reach net-zero by 2050.
Speaking to the conference, McGlade noted that this widely-cited conclusion required additional context around the need for continued investment in existing fossil fuel projects:
“We don’t have investment dropping to zero in the next couple of years, because if we cut off all investment into fossil fuels the declines in supply would be faster than the declines we see in fossil fuel demand.”
The scenario also assumed a sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and ambitious climate policies, and did not forsee the war in Ukraine, he added:
“Any immediate shortfalls that we see in production from Russia will need to be realised or compensated elsewhere.”
Nevertheless, he said the focus should be on existing, readily available sources due to long lead times for new projects. He also added that the war should not “justify a new large and long-lived investment into new fossil fuel infrastructure:
“The key thing…to help alleviate the impact of the energy crisis is to see a huge boost in clean energy [and] energy efficiency.”
Discussing @IEA net-zero scenario, @TofMcGlade says despite the “no new fossil fuel” message, they actually don’t have investment dropping to zero— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
“If we cut off all investments into fossil fuels, the declines in supply would be faster than the declines in demand”#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/VySKy7VvgG
The question of whether any new fossil fuel projects can be seen as compatible with a 1.5C world came up at various other points throughout the conference.
On Monday, Olivier Bois von Kursk, a policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), ran through the preliminary results of his new analysis finding that most 1.5C scenarios – including those assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and from other sources – could be interpreted as being in agreement with the IEA’s recommendation for no new fossil fuel projects.
In 2021, a major @IEA report found there is no space for new oil and gas if the world is to meet 1.5C— Daisy Dunne (@daisydunnesci) September 26, 2022
An analysis of @IPCC_CH 1.5C scenarios by @IISD_news finds that they broadly concur with this, (but don’t make the same recommendation b/c this is beyond their remit)😬#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/iXTftNgrGR
Also at the conference, Dr Natalie Jones, a policy adviser at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), presented her analysis of how countries had discussed fossil fuels in the climate plans they submitted to the UN.
She found that far from committing to winding down fossil fuel combustion, most countries that mentioned these fuels said they intended to increase their use in the coming years.
Countries are increasingly likely to mention fossil fuels in their climate plans under the Paris Agreement, says @nataliejon_es— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 27, 2022
This research was supported by another presentation given by Prof Kathryn Harrison, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.
She noted that, overall, there has been little evidence of wealthy, major historical emitters actually cutting their production of fossil fuels. This is in spite of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” – enshrined in the UN climate treaties they have signed up to – implying they should take the lead in this area.
One part of the talks focused on the question of “stranded assets” – fossil fuel developments that lose their value as the world shifts to clean energy.
Prof Alexandre Szklo, an energy researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro discussed his exploration of stranded oil refinery assets around the world, while Prof Steve Pye, and energy systems scientist at University College London, discussed his team’s work on oil-and-gas facilities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In a 2C scenario, @st_pye says 39-50% of gas reserves need to stay in the ground in Latin America and Caribbean, says @st_pye— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
Some, like Trinidad and Tobago have more leeway 🇹🇹
But Mexico 🇲🇽 must leave 70% unburned#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/To6uNooifs
Dr Salaheddine Soummane, a senior associate at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Saudi Arabia, presented a review paper detailing the potential impact of climate policies on Middle East economies.
Many of the Gulf States, in particular, have economies that are highly dependent on fossil fuel revenues. The energy transition could bring an element of “risk” to these oil exporters, Soummane explained.
“They have to solve a tricky question, which is how to meet the local or domestic climate pledges, while at the same time sustaining and…driving a significant rate [of growth,] which is important to continue their development.”
In a separate talk, Michele Bustamante, a staff scientist at the National Resources Defense Council outlined a new approach to assessing whether new US oil-and-gas pipelines or leases align with the 1.5C climate target:
“We have to figure out how to make these individual decisions… [to] reflect the fact that it’s not just a drop in the bucket. This is typically what [the] conclusions [of] environmental reviews and agencies will tell you.”
Only around 1% of thousands of simulated US oil pipelines were found to be consistent with a 1.5C scenario, in a climate test developed by @BustamantePhD at @NRDC #FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/xLPCm2A2JB— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
Further fossil fuel expansion
Despite the role of fossil fuels in driving climate change and the plummeting prices of renewable energy technologies, many nations are still pursuing the expansion of coal, oil and gas infrastructure.
Many talks explored this pursuit and the national contexts behind its continuation.
Dr Valérie Marcel, an associate fellow at Chatham House, explained her project concerning “emerging oil and gas producers”, a group of nations that either are or are considering developing their fossil fuel resources for the first time.
She emphasised the difficulty that many of these nations were having in accessing climate finance and developing clean energy technologies instead of fossil fuels.
Emerging fossil fuel producers such as DRC 🇨🇩 and Papua NG🇵🇬 are often low income with low access to power says @ValerieMarcel— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
These nations account for just 1.7% of GHGs, but that could change
Crucially, low-carbon route is difficult for them without climate finance#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/tHtFT3Zc0y
Prof Kalim Shah, a climate policy expert at the University of Delaware, gave a related talk on the emerging oil-and-gas industry in Guyana – one of the nations in Marcel’s network – as well as other countries in the “Guianas shield” region.
In another set of presentations, Andrea Furnaro, an energy transition fellow at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), discussed the role of the Mexican national oil company, Pemex, as the nation’s government pivots towards self-sufficiency in fossil fuels.
Mexico 🇲🇽 is a major emitter and an oil-rich nation that is aiming for energy self sufficiency by scaling up its oil refineries@AndreaFurnaro says she is seeing a similar spread of self sufficiency narrative among other fossil fuel-rich countries.#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/Tt6qFFXpcc— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
In a session dedicated to “financing the transition”, Bronwen Tucker, global public finance co-manager at Oil Change International, laid out the public finance being directed by the G20 group of major economies and multilateral development banks towards different energy technologies.
She demonstrated that not only is fossil-fuel financing higher, but that clean-energy finance from G20 nations has not been increasing substantially in recent as a whole.
“One of the more surprising findings” in public energy finance database is that not only is finance for fossil fuels much higher, clean energy finance from G20 countries hasn’t gone up that much – despite commitments, says@bronwentucker pic.twitter.com/RHZ87QlQzM— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 27, 2022
Oil majors, greenwashing and misinformation
Several speakers at the conference had been investigating the fossil fuel industry itself – and attempts by some actors to resist climate action.
Dr Christian Downie, an associate professor at the Australian National University, told the conference about his investigation into fossil fuel trade associations in the US, such as the American Petroleum Institute.
He looked at revenue and spending data for these organisations, and noted a particularly large amount of money going towards advertising, including campaigns to target perceived opponents. He told the conference:
“The reason [trade associations] run some of the dirtier campaigns is because firms don’t want to be tarnished by coming out against climate change.”
US trade associations such as American Petroleum Institute are a “big part of the problem” says @DownieChristian— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 27, 2022
Clean energy association revenue (red circle) tiny compared to fossil fuels (the rest)
“Gives you an idea of why we’re sometimes losing the battle” he says#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/GsViFVuySq
In her talk, Laura Peterson of the Union of Concerned Scientists explored how right-wing political factions in the US have been turning climate risk disclosure and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing into a new front in the “culture war”.
Elsewhere, Prof Gregory Trencher, from the graduate school of global environmental studies at Kyoto University in Japan, explained the results of his research examining the use of carbon offsets by BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell.
He noted that several of these companies are currently relying on what he called “aged offsets” to reduce their climate impact.
He explained that “aged offsets” is a term used to describe schemes where the greenhouse gas emission reduction occurred several years ago. He compared this to “celebrating with a pizza for a run around the park you did 10 years ago”.
Many oil majors are relying on “aged” carbon offsets, which is bit like “celebrating with a pizza for a run around the park you did 10 years ago”, says @gregtrencher #FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/wA7lDRgbuc— Daisy Dunne (@daisydunnesci) September 27, 2022
Amid growing pressure from the academic and activist communities to leave most fossil fuels in the ground, Dr Mathieu Blondeel, a research fellow at Warwick Business School, told the audience his goal was to find out what international oil companies are “actually doing” when it comes to the energy transition.
In particular, he looked at where these firms are divesting fossil fuel assets, noting that these decisions were not always made as a result of climate commitments.
The vast majority of fossil fuel assets that companies have divested from are in the North Sea and shale gas deposits in the US, says @BlondeelMathieu— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
Relevant for politicians eager to squeeze every molecule of North Sea and shale gas from the UK.#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/ckutJh5mva
Global movements for ending fossil fuels
As well as featuring the latest from the research community, the conference also discussed several global efforts for ending new fossil fuel projects.
On Monday, delegates heard from the chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, Tzeporah Berman, which aims to trigger a global fossil-fuel phase-out through the establishment of an international treaty, in a similar way to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
She gave an update on progress towards convincing countries to commit to ending new fossil fuel development.
She told the audience about several key breakthroughs in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, including achieving the backing of the Dalai Lama and 100 other Nobel laureates.
However, she expressed her frustration at ongoing “misinformation” from the fossil fuel industry, especially in light of the global energy crisis. She told the audience that the initiative will continue to attempt to “erode the influence and access of the fossil fuel industry”, adding that “courage is contagious” among activist groups.
“Courage is contagious,” says @Tzeporah of the @fossiltreaty on the campaign’s efforts to end new fossil fuel expansion and “erode the influence and access of the fossil fuel industry”#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/hcp61DU7ca— Daisy Dunne (@daisydunnesci) September 26, 2022
Prof Peter Newell, a political scientist at the University of Sussex, also discussed the initiative, arguing it must be about “doing what [the] Paris Agreement doesn’t do” – forcing nations to directly address fossil fuel production.
A Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty must be about “doing what Paris doesn’t do…has to be aligning fossil fuel production with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement,” says @PeterJNewell_— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 27, 2022
The Paris Agreement famously does not mention fossil fuels.#FFCC22
Another global initiative discussed at the conference was the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), a small coalition of countries led by Costa Rica and Denmark that have pledged to transition away from producing oil and gas, launched at COP26 in 2021.
A panel dedicated to the BOGA featured speakers from several countries involved in the initiative, including Jeppe Helsted, a special adviser at the ministry of climate, energy and utilities at the government of Denmark, and Ed Sherriff, an advisor at the Welsh government.
During his remarks, Sheriff sought to strongly distance Wales from Westminster, which under new prime minister Liz Truss has lifted the moratorium on fracking in England and pledged to fast-track new oil and gas projects in the North Sea.
Sherriff told the conference that Wales had been clear in its opposition to fracking, which he said was a position that has “cross-party support” in the Senedd.
Wales has resisted fracking, and membership of @beyondoilgas has helped with that, says government spokesman Ed Sheriff.— Josh Gabbatiss (@Josh_Gabbatiss) September 26, 2022
Worth remembering fracking has only been given the green light by Truss’s government in England.#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/ZUwHgywago
Elsewhere at the conference, Dr Truzaar Dordi, a researcher at the University of Waterloo, discussed the results of his widely-covered research identifying the 10 financial institutions that together own nearly half of the unburned fossil fuel reserves from the world’s biggest coal, oil and gas companies.
Targeting action at these 10 institutions could serve to “accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels”, Dordi told the conference.
Climate justice and local resistance
Throughout the conference, attendees heard stories of resistance to fossil fuel expansion, from Norway to South Africa.
One of the first speakers was Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous activist and member of the Waorani Nation, who gave a speech about her community’s successful effort to prevent the Ecuadorian government from issuing oil-and-gas drilling licences in their area of Amazon rainforest. She told the conference:
“I’ve come here to give a message because, often, Indigenous women are excluded from these kinds of spaces for policy and decision-making…Yet we are the ones on the frontlines and it is through our struggle that we are having a real impact against climate change.”
“Rights alone will not save us— Chris Garrard (@TheGarrard) September 26, 2022
Our wisdom, our connection, our love and unity – this is what gives us strength.
We took the government to court and we won.”
Hearing from Nemonte Nenquimo from Amazon Frontlines at the opening of #ffcc22 conference in Oxford… 1/2 pic.twitter.com/jErjZkXifN
The conference also heard from Nonhle Mbuthuma, an Indigenous land defender from the Xolobeni community in South Africa’s Wild Coast, on her community’s 30-year battle against multinational companies looking to conduct mining and fossil fuel operations in their territories.
Shortly before the conference, her community won a legal battle against Shell, which had previously been granted oil-and-gas exploration rights to search off the Wild Coast by the South African government.
Addressing the conference, Mbuthuma said:
“We say no to oil and gas. We say yes to the ocean – and yes to life.”
“We say no to oil and gas. We say yes to the ocean – and yes to life,” land defender Nonhle Mbuthuma speaks powerfully on her community’s legal battle against Shell in South Africa#FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/WhKbNWND5c— Daisy Dunne (@daisydunnesci) September 26, 2022
Prof Guri Bang, a climate policy researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences explained her work on the causes and effects of anti-fossil fuel movements in the UK and Norway, two nations with sizable North Sea reserves.
She told attendees that plans to develop the Cambo oil field, combined with COP26 in Glasgow, were important drivers of mobilisation in the UK.
The conference also heard from researchers examining how fossil fuel production can often disproportionately affect minority groups.
Dr Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace USA, told the audience about “fossil fuel racism” in the US.
He told the conference that, according to research, each stage of US coal, oil and gas production disproportionately impacts black, brown, Indigenous and poor communities.
Interesting to hear about “fossil fuel racism” in the US— Daisy Dunne (@daisydunnesci) September 27, 2022
This is an issue where researchers have had to play catch up to civil society and local communities, who have been raising the alarm for decades, says Timothy Donaghy @greenpeaceusa #FFCC22 pic.twitter.com/oYUImOk4nY
Ensuring a ‘just transition’
As nations shift away from fossil fuels, there is a risk that the workers and communities that rely on them will be left in the lurch.
Ensuring a “just transition” has therefore become a key issue for those concerned with social justice as well as climate action.
This was a common theme throughout the conference and the opening session saw Jesse Burton, an expert in coal transitions at the University of Cape Town, discuss just transitions in the highly coal-dependent nation of South Africa.
She told the audience that coal accounts for around 200,000 jobs in South Africa:
“In a country where you have 50% unemployment…talking about closure, accelerating closure is incredibly politically and socially sensitive.”
Burton explained that just transition had taken on “huge political salience” in recent years and that the government has now produced a national just transition framework.
She discussed the need to embed its messages, including “remediation and rehabilitation for communities who are already impacted by fossil fuels”. Burton also noted the appropriation of just transition concepts:
“We’ve seen there, as in many other countries, the vested interests start to adopt the language of just transition…They say this is a barrier to action, we shouldn’t have climate action because of the just transition implications.”
Day 2 of #FFCC22 and we’re hearing from experts about how to achieve a just transition away from fossil fuels— Daisy Dunne (@daisydunnesci) September 27, 2022
Important to note that the starting point, a fossil-fuelled world, is “neither just nor sustainable”, says @GaylorTIPS pic.twitter.com/10Men5awz1
Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, an economist at the Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) research institution in South Africa, told the conference that conversations about the need for a “just transition” often wrongly assume that the world’s current fossil-fuel based economy offers a fair and just deal for minority groups.
Instead of maintaining the status quo, a just transition away from fossil fuels should instead seek to provide “restorative justice”, he added.
Fossil fuels: Is the world on track for moving past coal, oil and gas production?