New study reaffirms what we all knew – fossil fuel companies plot the path to climate ruin

Multiple onshore oil drilling wells.
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Scientists have said that fossil fuel companies are currently on track to far exceed production in line with Paris Agreement climate goals.

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change evaluated the current growth trajectories for 142 of the largest coal, oil, and gas producers. It measured these against a series of ‘pathways’. In particular, these are scenarios for keeping the world below 1.5C of warming on pre-industrial levels.

Significantly, the research found that the companies are projected to produce amounts of coal, oil and gas that would push the world well beyond ‘safe‘ warming limits.

Pathways to Paris

The study looked at the companies’ trajectories against different 1.5C scenarios. The shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) model potential fossil fuel production futures.

All three study SSPs represent pathways that the models consider consistent with 1.5C. However, each scenario will require different levels of mitigation from carbon removal technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is a process by which carbon emissions are captured from industrial facilities and then stored deep underground.

The three separate scenarios comprise of a “green road”, a “middle of the road”, and a “fossil-fuelled development” pathway. Using these, the study author quantified “production budgets” for the 142 companies. This is the amount of coal, oil, and gas a company can produce whilst keeping in line with each of these scenarios.

The study found that if the companies maintained the growth rates measured between 2010 and 2018, they would soar past even the “fossil-fuelled development” production budget by 2050. Specifically, the corporations would produce 17% more coal and 3% more oil than this budget. Moreover, this would still rely on the use of CCS to remove 45% of coal and 1% of oil emissions.

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By comparison, the “middle of the road” scenario anticipated greater use of gas. In contrast however, it expects less coal and oil production. Under this, the study authors found that companies would exceed their production budgets for coal, oil and gas by 65%, 33%, and 53%, respectively. Similarly, this would require CCS. Companies would need to remove 13% of coal, 7% of oil, and 14% of gas emissions through the technology.

Production instead of emissions

Notably, the study stands apart from similar research on fossil fuel company compliance with Paris climate goals. Instead of measuring company emission projections, it focuses directly on production.

In view of corporate moves angled at greenwashing emissions pledges, the study suggested that it provided:

a simple and transparent method to evaluate a wide range of fossil fuel companies against climate scenarios.

For example, fossil fuel companies have tended to solely measure ‘scope 1’ and ‘scope 2’ emissions.  These are the greenhouse gases directly related to their operations. In effect, they consider only the emissions from the exploration, extraction, and production of fossil fuels in their net-zero targets.

As a result, oil majors often do not account for the emissions that consumers generate from the burning of their products. These downstream GHGs are referred to as ‘scope 3’ emissions.

However, since this study evaluates overall production, it prevents companies from shifting responsibility for scope 3 emissions.

A recent report found that a majority of the world’s biggest companies do not have credible plans for meeting net zero. As the Canary’s Tracy Keeling highlighted, the research found that fossil fuel company pledges were “largely meaningless”.

What’s more, on 11 August, nonprofit Global Witness exposed the “COP28 President’s ‘hypocritical’ oil firm”. The organisation found that Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) had produced 14 times more emissions in 2022 than it had reported. The upcoming climate summit’s president sultan Al Jaber heads the national oil company. Unsurprisingly, the disparity centred round its failure to include its scope 3 emissions.

Circumventing industry greenwashing

Moreover, fossil fuel companies have doubled down on dubious rhetoric to maintain their production. As the Guardian has previously reported, the idea of ‘carbon intensity’:

has become a favorite of banks, oil companies and other big businesses.

This is a metric to assess the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions generated for an activity. For instance, this could include the quantity of GHGs emitted in manufacturing a product.

At the COP27 climate summit, a United Nations (UN) expert working group launched a report to counter greenwashing. In particular this targeted corporations, investors, and other “non-State entities”. The publication presented a series of recommendations that these actors should take to avoid greenwashing. Notably, it stated that:

Non-state actors cannot focus on reducing the intensity of their emissions rather than their absolute emissions

However, a PLOS One journal study found that some fossil fuel majors have been doing exactly that.

The UK government has also recently applied this slippery concept to its so-called “energy security” plans. Sunak invoked the metric to hypocritically argue the climate benefits of permitting hundreds of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea.

Therefore, the Nature study stated that by focusing on “comparing fossil fuel ‘production’ to Paris-compliant fossil fuel demand projections” it shifted the focus “from ‘intensity’ to ‘absolute’ measures”.

In other words, the study assessed whether companies are genuinely preparing to take concrete climate action. In the case of fossil fuel corporations, this would require massively reducing polluting production. Of course, it should come as no surprise that these climate criminals are not doing this.

Fossil fuel delegates hijack climate talks

The new study comes as nations gear up to meet for climate talks in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. World leaders will convene for the United Nations COP28 climate summit at the end of November. They will hash out plans for meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C commitment.

Already, oil and gas majors have weasled their way into influential roles at the conference. Fossil fuel delegates have also filled previous climate negotiations. Since nations signed the Paris Agreement, five of the biggest oil companies alone have brought over 400 lobbyists to UN climate talks. COP28 is not about to buck the trend. COP28 president sultan Al Jaber has said that he plans to welcome fossil fuel producers to the talks.

In July, a leading UK climate scientist and former head of the UN’s key climate body said that he does not believe the world will prevent warming above 1.5C. If that proves true, the Nature study shows clearly who is to blame. As the world careers from one climate crisis supercharged disaster to another, the fossil fuel felons responsible have no intention of changing course.

Feature image via Maxence/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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