Governments around the world, including Australia’s, are planning to expand the fossil fuel industry to about twice what would be consistent with their pledge to try to stop warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, a United Nations report has found.

The report found governments are not only planning to breach production levels consistent with global 1.5 and 2C warming limits, but also their own announced emissions pledges and stated policies.

It comes ahead of a major UN climate summit in the United Arab Emirates later this month, which could see rich countries commit to compensating poor countries for the increasingly catastrophic effects of past fossil fuel use.

But oil and gas producers have pushed back against the report and say gas in particular will be needed for decades to back up renewable energy.

They also said gas would help underpin the mineral processing and manufacturing required to clean up the economy.

The latest Production Gap Report, released on Wednesday, suggested the “plans and projections” of governments implied coal production would continue to increase until 2030 and that oil and gas output would rise until “at least 2050”.

The report found that while many of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers had pledged to reduce their emissions to “net zero” by the middle of the century, not one had committed to cutting coal, oil or gas production in line with the 1.5C target.

“The 2023 Production Gap report is a startling indictment of runaway climate carelessness,” UN secretary-general Antonia Guterres said.

“Governments are literally doubling down on fossil fuel production — that spells double trouble for people and planet.”

Carbon budget ‘almost up’

Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN’s Environment Programme, bemoaned what he said were the short-sighted actions of many governments.

She said the upcoming COP28 conference in Dubai, where global leaders will try to hash out ways of tackling global warming, would be a crucial test of their resolve.

“Governments’ plans to expand fossil fuel production are undermining the energy transition needed to achieve net-zero emissions, creating economic risks and throwing humanity’s future into question,” Ms Andersen said.

“Starting at COP28, nations must unite behind a managed and equitable phase-out of coal, oil and gas to ease the turbulence ahead and benefit every person on this planet.”

According to the report, the use of fossil fuels accounts for almost 90 per cent of global emissions.

It said that without curbing their use, the world – by 2030 – could exceed the so-called emissions budget that would give a 50 per cent chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century.

The authors said both emissions and fossil fuel production needed to peak “and swiftly decline” to keep the goals of limiting global warming within reach.

Instead, they said “governments are planning on producing around 110 per cent more fossil fuels in 2030 that would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C, and 69 per cent more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2C”.

“Few countries have developed fossil fuel production projections that are aligned with their national climate goals,” the report noted.

“The disconnect between governments’ fossil fuel production plans and their climate pledges is also apparent across all three fuels (coal, oil and gas).”

‘Bridge to nowhere’ panned

To highlight their point, the authors noted that 17 out of the world’s top 20 energy producers had signed pledges to become carbon neutral at the same time as they were ramping up output.

They said Australia, where coal and gas production were forecast to increase was no different.

They were particularly critical of efforts to install gas as the essential fuel to transition towards renewable energy.

“Many countries are promoting gas as a ‘bridge’ or ‘transition’ fuel, but with no apparent plans to transition away from it,” the authors wrote.

“However, gas could hinder or delay the transition to renewable energy systems by locking in fossil-fuel-based systems and institutions.

“Moreover, despite some local air pollution benefits when substituting for coal, advances in the quantification of methane leakage along the gas supply chain have substantially reduced the expected climate benefits of replacing coal with gas.”

The authors also took aim at the ambitions of many fossil fuel producers and some governments to reduce emissions by storing them underground or directly capturing them from the air.

They said the current amount of emissions that were stored through carbon capture was negligible and that four out of every five projects to demonstrate the technology over the past 30 years had failed.

The “potential failure of these measures to become sufficiently viable at scale” only heightened the need to phase out the production of new fossil fuel projects, the authors argued.

“Powering economies with clean and efficient energy is the only way to end energy poverty and bring down emissions at the same time,” Ms Andersen said.

Gas to ‘unlock’ green energy?

Faced with the criticism, the boss of the lobby that represents Australia’s oil and gas producers hit back.

Australian Energy Producers chief executive Samantha McCulloch said gas in particular would continue to be vital the global economy for many years.

Ms McCulloch said gas would be required to not only make up for the shortfall when the sun was not shining and the wind was not blowing, but would also underpin much of the world’s industrial base.

To that end, she pointed out that gas would be crucial to mineral processors and manufacturers that would help deliver green technologies such as batteries and electric vehicles.

“It is widely established that gas will continue to help unlock and support renewable generation as a reliable backup and partner in electricity grids as coal exits the system,” Ms McCulloch said.

“Not to mention the many other uses of gas in low-carbon hydrogen production, as a fuel and feedstock in manufacturing, creating every day products, including the processing of the critical minerals needed for net zero.

“For example, the Australian Energy Market Operator … showed how gas would continue to be needed during peak demand periods including during periods of high renewable output.”

Ms McCulloch also stood by the industry’s claims that gas produces “about 50 per cent less life-cycle emissions” compared with coal in electricity generation.

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