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Fossil Fuel Drilling Plans Undermine Climate Pledges, U.N. Report Warns

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WASHINGTON — Even as world leaders vow to take stronger action on climate change, many countries are still planning to dramatically increase their production of oil, gas and coal in the decades ahead, potentially undermining those lofty pledges, according to a United Nations-backed report released Tuesday.

The report looked at future mining and drilling plans in 15 major fossil fuel producing countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, China, India and Norway. Taken together, those countries are currently planning to produce more than twice as much oil, gas and coal through 2030 as would be needed if governments want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Scientists and world leaders increasingly say that holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is crucial if humanity wants to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, such as ever-deadlier heat waves, large scale flooding and widespread extinctions. The world has already heated up roughly 1.1 degrees since the Industrial Revolution.

But the planned global expansion of fossil fuel extraction clashes sharply with those climate goals, the report found.

If the world remains awash in oil, gas and coal for decades to come, then many countries could find it more difficult to shift to cleaner sources of energy. At the same time, many of the oil wells and coal mines now being approved and developed could prove deeply unprofitable if demand for fossil fuels shrinks, creating economic disruption.

By 2030, the report found, the world’s nations are planning to produce 240 percent more coal, 57 percent more oil and 71 percent more natural gas than would be needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Starting Oct. 31, world leaders will gather at a major United Nations climate summit in Glasgow for two weeks to discuss how to reduce their planet-warming emissions. But environmentalists say that governments also need to focus on future plans for fossil fuel extraction, so that they are more closely aligned with proposals to sell more electric vehicles or install more renewable power.

“The world’s governments must step up, taking rapid and immediate steps to close the fossil fuel production gap and ensure a just and equitable transition,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

Over the past decade, governments and businesses have slowly begun nudging the global economy away from its longstanding reliance on fossil fuels. Many countries are now planning significant expansions of wind and solar power and canceling plans for new coal plants. Major automakers like Ford and General Motors are investing heavily in electric vehicles and preparing to phase down sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars.

But that’s just a start. The International Energy Agency recently looked at what would be needed to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. All of the world’s nations would have to drastically cut their fossil-fuel use over the next three decades until they are no longer adding any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2050, essentially achieving “net zero” emissions.

Under that scenario, the agency said, the world’s nations would not approve the development of any new coal mines or new oil and gas fields beyond what has already been committed today.

A coalfield in India’s Jharkhand state this month.Credit…Gautam Dey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet the new report, led by researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute, warns that many nations are still far out of step with that envisioned future.

Even as countries like China and the United States are expecting to cut back on coal extraction in the decades ahead, that would be offset by plans for new mining in places like Australia, India and Russia.

The United States, the report found, is still expected to see a major increase in oil and gas production by 2030. The Biden administration has vowed to pause and reform leasing programs for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, although those efforts have been tied up in the courts.

The report notes that more than half of fossil fuel production worldwide is controlled by state-owned companies, which are often insulated from market pressures and sometimes legally required to maintain production in order to keep tax revenues flowing. But even countries that depend on private companies to mine for coal or drill for oil often pay subsidies that can keep fossil fuel output artificially high.

In practice, it could prove tricky for governments to enact an orderly reduction of fossil fuel production worldwide. Even if the world does shift to cleaner energy, there will still be demand for oil and gas during the transition period. Each country that pumps out oil and gas would prefer to grab as much of that shrinking market share as possible and let others cut back. That dynamic can lead to overproduction worldwide.

Making the task even tougher, the world is currently experiencing a severe energy crunch, with Europe, Asia and Latin America all facing shortages of natural gas this fall to supplant their renewable power operations. The International Energy Agency recently warned that nations need to significantly increase their investment in clean energy to overcome these problems, but the disruptions could also bolster calls for more fossil fuel production. China’s government, for example, recently ordered coal companies to increase their mining output to manage an electricity shortage that has led to rolling blackouts nationwide.

To address these challenges, the new report calls for closer international coordination “to ensure that declines in fossil fuel production are distributed as equitably as possible, while minimizing the risks of disruption.”

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