Although scientists keep insisting that the planet needs to move away 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.
Within the next few years, multinational companies such as Qatar Energy, Gazprom, Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, Petrobras, Turkmengaz, TotalEnergies, Chevron and Shell are planning to open new gas and oil production sites. These projects alone could put a strain on the carbon budget available to limit the effects of global warming.
In a report unveiled on Wednesday at COP27, the US NGO Oil Change International revealed that new fossil fuel projects approved, or in the process of being approved between 2022 and 2025, could lead to 70 billion tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere over the course of their operation. Projects approved in 2022 alone are responsible for 11 billion tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of China's annual emissions.
One of the projects that the NGO is targeting is TotalEnergies' oil extraction mega-project in Uganda, which is due to be operational by 2025. The French company plans to drill 400 wells and export the oil through the huge EACOP pipeline. These two projects combined will be responsible for emitting more than 34 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
'Some 90 percent of CO2 emissions linked to fossil fuels'
However, for several years now, scientists have been hammering home that the only way we will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 -- the target set by the European Union -- is if we move away from our dependence on oil, gas and coal. "Some 90 percent of the CO2 emissions emitted by humans are linked to fossil fuels," says Jean-Marie Breon, a climatologist at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory. The remaining 10 percent is linked to deforestation.
According to the latest IPCC report, to prevent global temperatures from rising above the fateful 1.5C mark, we must reduce our coal consumption by 95 percent, oil by 60 percent and gas by 45 percent 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 account for 80 percent of the world's energy mix today. We are not successfully accelerating the energy transition," says Breon. "And every new fossil fuel project takes us further off course and reduces our chances of staying below 1.5C."
"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 doesn't work," TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne told France Info while at COP27. "If we stopped building new oil and gas fields, there would be a natural decline in production of four percent to five percent per year. But energy demand is not declining by four to five percent. So if we stopped doing our job, there wouldn't be enough production, prices would continue to rise and everyone would be angry."
According to environmental protection associations, these arguments are based on a "short-termist logic".
"The climate scientists tell us that we only have three years left to reverse the trend, so we have to 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 1.5C of warming. Not only must no new gas, oil and coal projects be built, but we must also start phasing out existing sites."
Pinson feels that the main objective is to put an end to and prevent new "carbon bombs" from being implemented. 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 one billion tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime," says Kjell Kühne, the study's lead author.
Kühne and his team 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, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Australia, India, Qatar, Canada and Iraq.
"They are single-handedly driving us towards climate disaster," he says. "Taken to their logical conclusion, they represent twice 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 percent of the world's oil and gas production and 25 percent of the world's coal production came from these carbon bombs," says Kühne. "But 40 percent of our list is made up of sites that are still in the project stage," he continues. "Governments, institutions and companies see this as a list of sites not to invest in. Climate activists see it as a list of projects to mobilise against."
For several years now, environmentalists have been stepping up their efforts to stop fossil fuel investments by holding demonstrations and employing legal action. For instance, Reclaim Finance, alongside other NGOs, took the first step towards filing a lawsuit against BNP Paribas at the end of October 2022. They put the leading French bank, a shareholder in TotalEnergies, on notice to stop funding fossil fuel development.
In June 2022, young Europeans filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against 12 countries -- the UK, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Greece, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Luxembourg and Sweden -- that signed the Energy Charter Treaty, which is viewed as being too lenient on fossil fuels. Several of them, including France, have since announced they are withdrawing 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 now supported by the European Parliament, the WHO, around 70 cities including Paris, London, Lima and Calcutta, 100 Nobel Prize winners, 3,000 scientists and 1,800 civil society organisations," says Alex Rafalowicz, the initiative's director. Until now, only the State of Vanuatu had given its official support. It was joined at the beginning of November by Tuvalu, the first state that spoke 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 the next two years, is intended to complement the Paris agreements. The reference text, which was signed in 2015 and written with the aim of fighting against global warming, does not mention fossil fuels.
"The subject was not clearly discussed until COP 26 last year," Rafalowicz says. "Until then, we were merely talking about reducing CO2 emissions and developing renewable energies, without really pointing to the main cause of global warming." In fact, participating nations officially pledged to reduce their coal use for the first time at COP26 in Glasgow. Some 15 countries, including France, also promised to halt their foreign investments in "fossil fuel projects without carbon capture systems".
"The aim is to stop the expansion and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and then gradually reduce production," Rafalowicz says. "But of course, this must be done on an equitable basis. The most developed countries must help the most vulnerable. Energy must be available to all."
In addition to this treaty, several states at COP26 formed a "Beyond oil and gas" (BOGA) coalition to promote the transition away from fossil fuels. But one year on, the alliance, which is co-chaired by Denmark and Costa Rica and includes France, is struggling to recruit members. Fiji and Chile are the only ones that have joined it as "friendly" countries, while the state of Washington, in northwest US, is now a full member.
Within the context of the energy crisis linked to the war in Ukraine, which has led some countries to return to coal and gas, the issue seems thornier than ever. No less than 636 fossil fuel industry lobbyists were at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, which represents an increase of more than 25 percent compared to last year. NGOs see this as a sign that the Climate Conference may also have been used as a front for some gas contracts.
This article was translated from the original in French.