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KEEP IT IN THE GROUND

The Ukraine war has undermined the advice of the world’s climate scientists

An employee holds a sample of crude oil at the Yarakta oilfield, owned by Irkutsk Oil Co, in the Irkutsk region, Russia.
REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko/File Photo
The IPCC report is unequivocal that world needs to reduce fossil fuel consumption as quickly as possible.
  • Tim McDonnell
By Tim McDonnell

Climate reporter

Published

The global economy must pursue “a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use” to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, a major new UN report says. But as governments look for alternatives to oil and gas from Russia, the opposite will happen: investment in drilling is only going to increase.

The third report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on April 4 after the longest negotiating session in the group’s three-decade history, focuses on the steps needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Previous sections of the report covered basic climate science and steps for adaptation.

The world is up 1.1 degrees already, and on track to hit 2.7 degrees by 2100. And we have already used up four-fifths of the “carbon budget” that would need to be followed to have even a 50-50 chance of hitting 1.5, the IPCC report says.

In that context, UN secretary-general António Guterres said in a press conference, “the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.” But today, that group includes the US, Europe, and most other major economies.

Will the Ukraine war lock in high carbon emissions?

In a May 2021 report, the International Energy Agency made clear that the only way to hit 1.5 was to immediately cease any expansion of fossil fuel production and invest only enough to keep some existing wells pumping.

But as the economy recovers from covid and Russia becomes persona not grata, most oil and gas companies have big expansion plans. In an April 4 letter to shareholders, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon—whose bank is the world’s top fossil financier—called for the “immediate approval for additional oil leases and gas pipelines.”

In a perfectly balanced energy market, Europe and the US might invest just enough to precisely offset Russian oil and gas which, without buyers, could be left in the ground. That would avoid breaking the carbon budget any more than it already is. But the budget is already overshot if you count emissions from fossil fuel projects that are currently under development, the IPCC report says. Anything more would bury that goal completely.

The good news, the IPCC says, is that the costs of clean energy have fallen so much that low-cost (less than $100 per ton of CO2) replacements for fossil fuels could cut global emissions in half by 2030.

Carbon removal is “unavoidable”

Still, especially if new fossil infrastructure is forthcoming, a significant scale-up of technologies to capture emissions, both from specific sources like power plants and from the general atmosphere, is “unavoidable,” the report says. This is the first IPCC report to make an unequivocal case for carbon removal. That will include nature-based solutions like reforestation, and high-tech carbon-sucking machines.

Still, said Stephanie Roe, lead climate scientist at the World Wildlife Fund and an IPCC author, “cleaning up emissions after the fact is much more difficult and costly than it is to prevent them in the first place.” So the most urgent priority is to hit peak global emissions as soon as possible, and start to bend the curve down. Right now, they’re higher than ever.

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