It is hard to grapple with just how rapidly the world needs to transform to avoid catastrophic climate change. Any sense of urgency is being lost, however, as politicians debate whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means we should speed up the journey to net zero greenhouse gas emissions or increase fossil fuel production. Only today (22 March), the BBC reported that Shell could rethink its decision not to develop the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea in the face of rising oil prices. The science is clear, though: to have a 50 per cent chance of global heating not exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, emissions must start to fall in the next ten years.
For rich countries, blessed with healthy credit ratings and flexible public finances, orchestrating a rapid energy transition is challenging but not impossible. For low income countries the task is more difficult, and for poorer nations with economies heavily dependent on oil and gas the challenge is gargantuan.
Academics at Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research have come up with a plan that they believe can help to solve this dilemma. They have divided the 88 countries responsible for almost all oil and gas supply into five groups according to their “capacity” to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels. Each group is then assigned a date by which it should phase out oil and gas production to allow poorer nations more time to diversify their economies while ensuring the energy transition happens fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The centre’s report says that the 19 highest-capacity countries — including the US, the UK, Qatar and Norway — must end production by 2034, with a 74 per cent cut by 2030. Eleven medium-capacity countries — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia — must end production by 2043. The 25 lowest-capacity countries — such as Iraq, Angola and South Sudan — must end production by 2050. The authors add that the poorest countries will also need “significant financial support” to transition their economies.
“We need a game plan for how we tackle climate change because the three- or four-degree temperature rise we are looking at right now is completely civilisation-threatening,” Kevin Anderson, lead author of the report, told the New Statesman. “So far there has been plenty of rhetoric on climate change, but virtually no meaningful action in bringing our emissions down.”
The plan offers a more equitable pathway forward, and is the result of extensive research and calculations, but it remains difficult to see how it could play out in practice. Of all the countries analysed, only Denmark, France and Ireland -- all very small players -- have committed to ending oil and gas production and signed up to the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which brings together governments and industries. All other countries are continuing output, irrespective of whether they are wealthy or not.
UK oil policy is based on the notion of maximum economic recovery, meaning extraction would continue for as long as possible. In reaction to the war in Ukraine, a key British political priority is to try to boost fossil fuel production in countries such as Saudi Arabia and accelerate the licensing of new oil fields in the North Sea to reduce reliance on Russia. The government could, however, be pursuing a plethora of solutions to rapidly lower fossil fuel use, such as those presented by the International Energy Agency.
Other difficulties with the Tyndall Centre plan relate to the suggestion that rich countries should offer financial support to poorer ones to wean them off oil. Rich nations have continually failed to meet a 2009 target to provide $100bn in annual climate finance to developing nations, let alone invest enough money to move entire economies away from oil and gas.
One model could be the $8.5bn plan laid out by the US, UK and EU at Cop26 to help South Africa phase out coal, which provides 80 per cent of the country’s power. Again, however, the money has not been forthcoming. “There have been initial pledges and positive words, but so far nowhere near enough money has been provided for the plan to actually happen,” says Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
There are also other practical difficulties with the proposals, suggests Ward, including energy security concerns that make it unlikely that places like the UK or the US would ever agree to end production and rely solely on imports from more unstable or politically dubious regimes. Different countries also produce oil and gas at very different costs: if cheap Gulf state producers are phased out early on, soaring energy prices could be an unintended consequence.
Oil extraction is also not a simple or clean process. Often it produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, but many of the richer countries that would phase out oil and gas first under the Manchester University plan emit much less methane during production than those that would be producing until 2050. There is an argument to be made that the cleanest oil production should be allowed to continue while poorer petrostates adopt alternative sustainable development paths.
Focusing on specific critiques misses the broader point of the report, however, which is that world leaders urgently need to work together to come up with a plan to reduce use of fossil fuels, whatever the geopolitical or global economic circumstances.
“World leaders still see climate change as an add-on to business as usual," says Anderson. "We need to get to a point where it really is the number one priority. We can see this lacklustre attitude in the way the war in Ukraine has prompted Boris Johnson to scramble around for oil from any despotic regime that will provide it."