While scientists keep insisting that the planet must get out of its addiction to oil, gas and coal in order to fight climate change effectively, hydrocarbon exploitation projects continue to see the light of day. Several countries, cities and NGOs are calling for the establishment of a non-proliferation treaty for fossil fuels.
Qatar Energy, Gazprom, Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, Petrobras, Turkmengaz or even TotalEnergies, Chevron, Shell… In the coming years, many energy multinationals plan to open new gas and oil exploitation sites. Projects which, on their own, risk undermining the carbon budget available to limit global warming.
In a report released on Wednesday, November 16, during COP27, the American NGO Oil Change International reveals that new fossil fuel projects, approved or in the process of being approved between 2022 and 2025, could lead to the emission of 70 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over the life of their operation. The projects approved in 2022 alone would be responsible for producing 11 billion tonnes of CO2, equivalent to China’s annual emissions.
In the sights of the NGO, in particular, TotalEnergies and its oil extraction megaproject in Uganda, which must be operational by 2025. The French company plans to drill 400 oil wells there and then export the black gold thanks to to the massive EACOP pipeline. Combined, these two projects will contribute to emit more than 34 million tons of CO2 per year.
About 90% of CO2 emissions
However, for several years, scientists have been insisting that getting out of dependence on oil, gas and coal is a sine qua non condition for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 – the objective set by the European Union. “Some 90% of CO2 emissions emitted by humans are linked to fossil fuels”, recalls Jean-Marie Bréon, climatologist at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, the remaining 10% being linked to deforestation.
According to the latest IPCC report, to keep global warming below the fateful 1.5°C mark, it would therefore be necessary to reduce the consumption of coal, oil and gas by 95%, 60% and 45% respectively. % by 2050, compared to 2019. In 2021, the International Energy Agency called for an immediate halt to investment in new oil and gas facilities. Instructions since then regularly reiterated by many institutions, the UN in mind.
“Unfortunately, today, fossil fuels still represent 80% of the global energy mix. We are unable to accelerate the energy transition”, laments Jean-Marie Bréon. “And each new fossil project takes us further from our trajectory and decreases our chances of staying below 1.5°C.”
“We agree with the International Energy Agency on the 2050 target […] But our world lives on fossil fuels, believing that we will change the system overnight, it does not work”, defended himself on France Info the CEO of TotalEnergies, Patrick Pouyanné, during a trip to COP27. “If we stopped making new oil and gas fields, we would have a natural decline in production of 4% to 5% per year. However, the demand for energy does not decline by 4 to 5%. So, if we stopped doing our job, there wouldn’t be enough production, prices would continue to rise and everyone would be angry.”
Arguments that respond to a “short-termist logic”, denounce the associations for the defense of the environment. “Climate scientists tell us that we only have three years left to reverse the trend, we must act now”, reacts Lucie Pinson, director of the NGO Reclaim Finance. “We know that using all the fossil fuel reserves already in operation would take us beyond 1.5°C of warming. Not only should no new gas, oil and coal projects see the light of day, but we must also enter into a dynamic of progressive closure of existing sites.
For the winner of the Goldman prize for the environment, the “Nobel of ecology”, it is a priority to close – and prevent the opening – of “carbon bombs”. This term, given by a team of scientists in a study published in May 2021, designates the largest fossil fuel extraction projects in the world. “These are all coal, oil and gas infrastructures that could emit more than a billion tonnes of CO2 over their operating life”, explains Kjell Kühne, the main author of the work.
In total, Kjell Kühne and his team have listed 425 “carbon bombs” spread over 48 countries – 195 oil and gas projects and 230 coal mines. Ten countries concentrate more than ten: China, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Australia, India, Qatar, Canada and Iraq.
“On their own, they are rushing us towards climate disaster,” he warns. “Exploited until their term, they represent twice our global carbon budget.” Among them, huge coal mining projects in China, or oil sands in Canada, the Red Hill project in Australia, the Hambach and Garzweiler mines in Germany, but also the EACOP project in East Africa.
“In 2019, 45% of global oil and gas production and 25% of global coal production came from these carbon bombs,” insists Kjell Kühne.
“But 40% of our list designates sites that are still at the project stage,” he continues. “For governments, institutions or companies, this gives them a list of sites in which they should not invest. For climate defenders, these are the projects against which to mobilize.”
Demonstrations, punching actions, but also legal actions… For several years, environmental defenders have multiplied their actions to stop investment in the development of fossil fuels. It is with this in mind, for example, that at the end of October 2022, Reclaim Finance, alongside other NGOs, laid down a first milestone towards a lawsuit against the bank BNP Paribas. They put the first French bank, shareholder of TotalEnergies, on notice, calling on it to stop supporting the development of fossil fuels.
It is also with this in mind, another example, that young Europeans filed a complaint, in June 2022, before the European Court of Human Rights against twelve States – United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Germany , Austria, Greece, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden – signatories of the treaty on the energy charter, considered too protective of fossil fuels. Several of them, including France, have now announced that they are withdrawing from this text.
Towards a treaty on the non-proliferation of fossil fuels?
Faced with the emergency, in the corridors of COP27 in Egypt, other voices are heard calling for the establishment ofa fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.
“Launched in 2020, the idea is now supported by the European Parliament, the WHO, around 70 cities including Paris, London, Lima and Calcutta, 100 Nobel Prize winners, 3,000 scientists and 1,800 civil society organizations. “, enthuses Alex Rafalowicz, the director of the initiative. So far, only the state of Vanuatu has provided official support. Since early November, it has been joined by Tuvalu, the first state to speak out on the issue during official climate negotiations.
This treaty, which is based on the same model as the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and which Alex Rafalowicz hopes to see drawn up within two years, is intended to complement the Paris agreements. Because this reference text in the fight against global warming, signed in 2015, does not mention fossil fuels: “We had to wait for COP26, last year, for the subject to be clearly discussed”, recalls he. “Until then, we were talking about reducing CO2, developing renewable energies, without really pointing out the biggest cause of global warming”. It was in Glasgow that the States officially committed themselves, for the first time, to reducing the use of coal. Fifteen countries, including France, had also promised to put an end to their investments abroad “of projects related to fossil fuels not accompanied by carbon capture systems”.
“The objective is to stop the expansion and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, then, then, to gradually reduce production,” he summarizes. “But of course, this must be done in a principle of equity. The most developed countries must help the most vulnerable. Energy must be available for all.”
In addition to this treaty, several States committed themselves at COP26 in a “Beyond oil and gas” coalition (BOGA, beyond oil and gas) to promote the transition away from fossil fuels. But a year later, the alliance, co-chaired by Denmark and Costa Rica, and which notably includes France, is struggling to recruit. It was only joined by Fiji and Chile – as “friendly” countries – and the state of Washington in the northwestern United States as a new full member.
In the context of the energy crisis linked to the war in Ukraine, which has pushed certain countries to reconnect with coal or gas, the question seems more thorny than ever. In Sharm-el-Sheikh, no less than 636 fossil industry lobbyists are present, an increase of more than 25% compared to last year. The sign, for NGOs, that the Climate Conference may also serve as a screen for some gas contracts.