IPCC prepares last-ditch warning on climate crisis, as energy giants dig their heels in

BP Deepwater Horizon disaster
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The Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) began an important meeting on 13 March. In the week-long session, the IPCC will distill its findings from six reports on the climate crisis and amass them in a single ‘synthesis’ report. This report will be the closing act of the body’s sixth assessment cycle. In a nutshell, it will be a comprehensive manual for tackling the crisis.

The meeting comes hot on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s oil giant Aramco announcing colossal profits for 2022. It also follows the energy industry holding its own meeting in Houston, US. Discussions at this gathering made it clear that the industry overall has little intention of slowing down, let alone stopping, fossil fuel production.

IPCC: inaction and delay not an option

During the IPCC meeting’s opening ceremony in Switzerland, IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said that the synthesis report will be a:

fundamental policy document for shaping climate action in the remainder of this pivotal decade

He emphasised that this “textbook for addressing climate change” will not include “inaction and delays” among its options.

In its sixth assessment reports, the IPCC emphasised that emissions reductions in the 2020s are essential if the world is to stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C. The 2015 Paris Agreement set a core goal of trying to limit warming to 1.5C, and to cap it at “well under” 2C.

As the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) secretary-general has explained, the 1.5C threshold is an indicator of:

Read on...

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the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.

The IPCC’s 2022 report, which focused on climate change mitigation, outlined ways to halve emissions by 2030. But overall emissions are not moving in the right direction, with record highs globally in 2022.

Fossil fuel phase out is critical

UN chief António Guterres, who also spoke at the ceremony, stressed the urgency of swift action on emissions reduction:

Our world is at a crossroads – and our planet is in the crosshairs.

We are nearing the point of no return; of overshooting the internationally agreed limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.

He pointed to the obvious in relation to this, namely that limiting global warming requires policymakers to “accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels”. This is because burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, which are the primary driver of global warming.

As Inside Climate News reported, however, the fossil fuel industry recently held its own week-long meeting. At the CERAWeek conference, fossil fuel executives appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief that an accelerated phase out of fossil fuels is, as yet, nowhere in sight.

As the publication explained, heads of fossil fuel companies at the event highlighted that:

the war in Ukraine has helped make the case for fossil fuels and a “balanced” energy transition

For instance, the chief executive of ConocoPhillips, Ryan Lance, said:

It’s finally becoming reality after the Ukraine invasion, the need for energy security

Lance continued, saying that the war has:

really balanced and tipped the equation back probably in a more appropriate proportion.

Others at the conference were more explicit about how they planned to navigate the energy transition. Rick Muncrief, chief executive of Devon Energy, said:

Our strategy is to stay as oily as we can for as long as we can

Willow Project

It’s unsurprising that fossil fuel companies welcome a focus on ‘energy security’. Talk of energy security and a greenlight for fossil fuel expansion tend to go hand in hand. ConocoPhillips’ own recent experience offers a prime example of this.

Joe Biden’s administration approved the company’s Willow Project in Alaska on 13 March. The approval will enable ConocoPhillips to drill for new sources of oil and gas in the National Petroleum Reserve. As the BBC reported, lawmakers who represent Alaska in Congress have argued that the project:

would help boost domestic energy production and lessen the country’s reliance on foreign oil

Meanwhile, in his comments about the approval, Lance also claimed that the project will enhance US energy security.

Not real security

Organisations like Greenpeace and the Rapid Transition Alliance say that fossil fuel expansion doesn’t provide real energy security. The UK, for example, promised fossil fuel expansion in the North Sea in its 2022 Energy Security Strategy. But the Alliance has argued that:

opening up more oil and gas fields in the North Sea will not ensure the UK’s energy security – it will do the exact opposite. Newly pumped reserves will be owned by the privately owned companies that win the licensing rounds and sold through international export markets to the highest bidder.

Moreover, the expansions guarantee further climate insecurity, as criticism of the Willow Project highlighted. The Center for Biological Diversity’s Kristen Monsell was among those who condemned the decision. She said:

Biden approved Willow knowing full well that it’ll cause massive and irreversible destruction, which is appalling.

People and wildlife will suffer, and extracting and burning more fossil fuel will warm the climate even faster.

Sky-high profits

In recent weeks, energy companies have revealed their 2022 profits. This was when the invasion of Ukraine triggered more ‘balance’ in the energy transition, according to the industry chiefs at CERAweek.

The latest announcement came from Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, a state-owned company. It made a record-breaking $161bn during the year. This amounts to the highest recorded annual profits for a publicly listed company in history.

BP, meanwhile, doubled its profits in 2022 – to a record £23bn – compared to the previous year. Shell also made more profit in 2022 than it has done in any other year of its 115-year history, raking in £32.2bn.

With these figures in mind, it’s not hard to see why the fossil fuel industry is determined to continue and expand its operations. As Guterres said, though, policymakers urgently need to phase out fossil fuels to limit global warming. In other words, the priorities of policymakers and the fossil fuel industry should – theoretically – diverge at this juncture.

That’s clearly not manifesting in policymakers’ decision-making to the necessary extent, with many continuing to embrace fossil fuels. Moreover, state-owned companies are even at the vanguard of profiteering from their continued burning, as Aramco’s 2022 haul shows.

An instructive example

Guterres said that the IPCC synthesis report will provide “solid, frank, detailed scientific guidance” for world leaders at the next UN climate conference. The guidance, he suggested, can assist policymakers to make the right decisions and “bring the world in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement”.

This climate conference provides an instructive illustration of the current prospects for meaningful action by policymakers. The UAE holds the presidency for the conference. More specifically, the country’s minister Sultan Al Jaber will head up the negotiations – who also happens to be the chief executive of the UAE’s national oil company.

So, as solid as the IPCC’s guidance might be, an oil executive will ultimately determine the direction of travel. Campaigners have called this out as a clear conflict of interest.

To varying degrees, this is the issue at the heart of various environmental emergencies the world faces. Decision makers too often appear aligned – in thought and deed – with interests that are not only responsible for the crises, but actively pushing against the reforms necessary to tackle them. Until this changes, meaningful action will remain out of reach.

Featured image via Ideum – ideas + media / Flickr, cropped to 770×403, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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