No Phase Out or Phase Down: Fossil Fuel Production To Continue for Quite Some Time

This year's edition of UNEP’s Production Gap report shows that governments worldwide plan to produce double the fossil fuels in 2030 than the 1.5°C global warming limit allows.

New Delhi: Forget reducing or stopping the production of fossil fuels to tackle the climate crisis, governments across the world plan to produce around 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C, according to a UN report published on Wednesday, November 8.

India, the report says, leads the “near-term increase” in coal production, followed by Indonesia, and Russia. The report also noted that oil and gas production being planned by 12 countries with the lowest levels of relative economic dependence on their production – including India – would exceed global levels under the respective 1.5°C consistent pathways by 2040.

Fossil fuels all the way

As extreme weather events – heat waves, wildfires and glacial retreats – become more frequent and intense, the science is clear: the world has to limit global warming to under 1.5°C or, at the least, to 2°C, to tackle the climate crisis. The combustion of fossil fuels – such as coal and gas – is the main source of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and lead to climate change. Taking cognisance of this, countries and governments are pledging to decrease their production, use and dependence on fossil fuel-based energy and instead turn to cleaner energy sources such as solar and wind power. 

But promises are not always kept, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s annual Production Gap report tracks the misalignment between governments’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. The 2023 Production Gap Report is the fourth of its kind, and more than 80 researchers from over 30 countries contributed to the analysis and review, spanning numerous universities, think tanks and other research organisations.

The report says the global production gap – in the steps governments have pledged to take to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and their actions to really do so – has remained “largely unchanged” since the UN first assessed it in 2019. Governments across the world plan to produce around 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be in line with limiting warming to 1.5°C, and 69% more than would be consistent with 2°C, according to the report.

“Many major fossil-fuel-producing governments are still planning near-term increases in coal production and long-term increases in oil and gas production,” the report said, adding that this is “creating increasingly large production gaps over time”.

It recommended that governments be more “transparent in their plans, projections, and support for fossil fuel production and how they align with national and international climate goals”.

India, per the report, leads the “near-term increase” in coal production as it “seeks self-reliance and views the coal industry as currently being of paramount importance for income and employment generation”. 

The report also noted that oil and gas production being planned by 12 countries – Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, the UK, and the US – with the lowest levels of relative economic dependence on their production would exceed global levels under the respective 1.5°C-consistent pathways by 2040.

Per the report, “countries should aim for a near total phase-out of coal production and use by 2040 and a combined reduction in oil and gas production and use by three-quarters by 2050 from 2020 levels, at a minimum”.

“Governments are literally doubling down on fossil fuel production; that spells double trouble for people and [the] planet,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres in a press release. “We cannot address climate catastrophe without tackling its root cause: fossil fuel dependence. COP28 must send a clear signal that the fossil fuel age is out of gas — that its end is inevitable. We need credible commitments to ramp up renewables, phase out fossil fuels, and boost energy efficiency, while ensuring a just, equitable transition.”  

Representative image. Photo: Marcin Jozwiak/Pexels

India’s stand and peaking emissions

India, in its updated Nationally Determined Contributions submitted to the UNFCCC last year pledged, among others, to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030 (from the 2005 levels), to achieve about 50% of its cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030 and to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. These steps, India held, would help the country reach its long-term goal of reaching net zero by 2070.

India has held – including at global forums such as the Conference of Parties (COP) – that even though it is among the top countries that produce the highest carbon emissions currently, the historical emissions of developing countries are low when compared to those of developed countries. Therefore, a phase ‘down’ of coal, rather than a phase out – a total stop to coal production and use – is more feasible, just and equitable.

Experts too have backed this stand, for coal is still essential for India’s economic growth. Coal currently accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s electricity generation, and India needs it to lift millions out of poverty, experts have told The Wire Science

But developing countries are continuing their fossil fuel push as well. According to a recent report in June by Climate Action Tracker, developed countries such as the US, Canada, Norway and Australia – the major oil and gas producers and exporters – are planning to expand their production and export of fossil fuels. Though many governments have pledged to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, this still has not taken place. And none of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers have committed to ending new investments in oil and gas production; instead, they are increasing them, per the report.

At the upcoming COP28, India hopes to push developed nations to become carbon negative rather than carbon neutral by 2050 – so that this will permit developing countries more time to use fossil fuels for development needs, government sources told Reuters.

“India is right to call out the hypocrisy of the developed world by insisting on a comprehensive fossil fuel phase out that includes oil and gas,” commented Ashish Fernandes, the CEO of Climate Risk Horizons. 

“But at the same time, India cannot keep using the West’s hypocrisy to hide its own abject failure to rein in the growth of coal,” he added. 

“Renewable energy is the cheapest new source of electricity in India, and the cost of battery and other storage is also falling fast,” he wrote, in a press release. “Climate Risk Horizons’ analysis has shown in numerous states across the country that scrapping plans for new coal and even retiring some expensive coal plants while doubling down on renewables will lead to immense savings for the power system as a whole, benefitting state governments and consumers. There is no economic or financial rationale for the construction of new coal power plants in India – renewable energy is more than able to meet increased demand if the right policies are enacted. The public investment that is meant to go to new coal would be more productive if spent on India’s underfunded energy transition.”

Currently, India’s coal production is on the rise. As per the Ministry of Coal, India has achieved “a notable upswing” in overall coal production during October 2023, reaching 78.65 million tonnes (MT), surpassing the figures of 66.32 MT in October 2022. That is an increase of 18.59%. The production of Coal India Limited (CIL) alone has increased to 61.07 MT in October this year as compared to 52.94 MT in October 2022, a growth of 15.36%. Similarly, the production of coking coal – which is used in the steel manufacturing industry – is expected to reach 140 MT by 2030.

A few days ago, more than 46 million healthcare professionals from around the world wrote a letter to the COP28 president-designate, calling on all countries to commit to “accelerating the phase-out” of fossil fuels in a just and equitable way due to its impacts on health and its role in climate change that also leads to the loss of human lives and endangerment of the environment.