Steve Pye, Dan Welsby, James Price, Paul Ekins and Danny Gross15 Oct 2021
In the run-up to the UN climate talks, Friends of the Earth interviewed the authors of a landmark academic study published in Nature, which showed that the vast majority of fossil fuels globally need to stay in the ground to limit climate breakdown to a 1.5°C temperature rise. Their study was reported around the world by the BBC, the Guardian and hundreds of other publications.
In this interview, the researchers revealed for the first time what their study means for UK fossil fuel extraction. They argue that production of oil, fossil methane gas (typically called ‘natural gas’) and coal in the UK needs to rapidly decline to limit global temperature heating to 1.5 degrees. Instead, the UK should commit immediately to stop new fossil fuel extraction projects, phase out production from existing projects, and join other countries in the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA).
Tell us why your new study on fossil fuels has been making waves around the world?
In our new academic paper that builds on the seminal work in 2015 by McGlade and Ekins, we find that nearly 60% of global oil and fossil methane gas and 90% of coal reserves, must remain in the ground. This almost doubles the estimate for oil in McGlade and Ekins, reflecting the increased climate ambition of the 1.5°C limit compared to the 2°C limit used in their study.
Despite the radical reduction in fossil fuel production, we highlight in the paper that our estimates of unextractable fossil fuels are likely underestimated. This is because of the large uncertainties in deploying at scale the carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies (such as growing trees and direct air capture) utilised in this scenario, plus the use of a carbon budget that only provides a 50% probability of limiting temperature to 1.5°C.
What are the implications for fossil fuel extraction in the UK?
Based on our estimates for Europe, rapid production decline of fossil fuels is required to meet the climate ambition that most countries in the world have signed up to. The average annual decline rates from our study significantly call into question any new fossil fuel extraction projects in the UK. This aligns with the International Energy Agency (IEA) Net Zero report which stated that no new oil, fossil methane gas and coal fields are required if global net-zero emissions are to be achieved by 2050.
Given that the UK is a wealthy country that’s less reliant on fossil fuel production to support the economy and government revenues than other countries (e.g. Nigeria), do you think it has a greater responsibility to restrict fossil fuel extraction faster?
The UK has a strongly diversified economy with limited and diminishing dependence on the oil and gas sector. As a country that wants to be seen as a climate leader and has benefitted enormously from fossil fuels in the past, an important immediate step would be to halt any new extraction projects and put in place a transition pathway that sets a timescale for the phase out of all fossil fuel production. The UK could start this process at COP26 by joining the recently announced Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), committing immediately to no new oil and gas projects.
On the basis of equity, it is incumbent on developed countries who have been beneficiaries of fossil fuels and have a greater capacity to reduce production, to rapidly phase out fossil fuel production and assist countries with higher dependency and lower capacity to do so too. For countries such as the UK, it will be critical to put in place a transition plan for workers in the sector, to ensure they can use their skills in new clean energy jobs and other sectors.
Should the government rule out all fossil fuel projects that have not yet been approved for development, such as the Cambo oil field and proposed Whitehaven coal mine?
Our model shows that projects that have already been developed will continue to produce to meet declining demand. Furthermore, the average annual decline rates from our analysis are similar to that of the IEA Net Zero report suggesting that investment in new fossil fuel projects should not be taken forward. If new production capacity is built in the UK, under the Paris Agreement targets, it will have to close elsewhere to remain within the carbon budget; in effect, be substituted. However, there is of course no mechanism for this to happen in the real world, and as a result the new project becomes additional.
To measure the emissions of fossil fuel extraction projects, it’s important that the UK government recognises the end-use emissions associated with burning the fossil fuels (the technical term is scope 3 emissions), not just the emissions associated with extraction activities (scope 1 and 2 emissions).
Your study acknowledged that the percentage of fossil fuels that need to stay in the ground is “very probably an underestimate of what is required” because of your model’s reliance on significant carbon dioxide removal technologies, such as trees and direct air capture. What are the implications for fossil fuel extraction if they do not work at the scale that some expect?
The model is using carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies that capture and store just over 4 GtCO2 per year by 2050. Whilst much lower than many of the other global scenarios that have been published, it is still a huge amount, equivalent to current annual CO2 emissions from India and Russia combined being extracted from the atmosphere every year and locked in geological storage forever. There is a high probability that this technology will not achieve this enormous scaling for a multitude of technical, socio-political and financial reasons.
If this technology is not able to deliver at the scale required, many more tonnes of CO2 will have been put in the atmosphere with no ability to remove it, locking the planet into further heating. This is why we suggest that CDR is a risky, unproven strategy to rely on and that, as such, our unextractable numbers are likely underestimates. In addition, another key factor driving our conclusion of underestimation is that we only used a 1.5°C carbon budget at a low probability outcome of 50%. Such a low chance of avoiding the worse effects of climate change does not seem a wise long-term strategy.