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On the Drive to 1.5°, History Shows Fossils Aren’t Doing Much to Help

Two new studies have made it clear that, if the world does get to net-zero in time to limit global heating to 1.5°C by 2100, it may not have done so with much help from fossil fuel companies. 

One trio of European scientists looked at more than 50 years of data in 105 countries to find there is no historical precedent for the rate at which the world must abandon coal and gas to limit climate change to the internationally-agreed target. 

And in a separate study, British scientists analyzed carbon emissions from 52 of the world’s leading oil and gas producers to find that many had yet to set greenhouse gas emissions goals, or to be clear about those goals they had established. Those that do have targets are not ambitious enough, they report in the journal Science. 

“Many companies are presenting their targets as compatible with international climate goals, either in a specific sense or in terms of a broad direction of travel, so that they can claim to still be good investments and more broadly still deserve a social licence to operate,” the researchers write. But, they add, these energy giants “are far from being aligned with limiting global warming to 2°C or below.”

That the world is a long way from the steps needed to reduce fossil fuel use to fulfill the promises made Paris in 2015 is not news. As the world prepares for the COP 26 climate conference of 196 nations in Glasgow, Scotland next week,  the UN Environment Programme’s latest Production Gap Report has just made that very clear. 

But fresh research in the journal One Earth by Swedish, Norwegian, and Austrian-based scholars highlights the scale of the challenge ahead.  They combed through 147 episodes across 105 countries in which coal, oil, or natural gas use fell by more than 5% over a decade and found 43 cases relevant to the climate emergency demands. 

With a dataset spanning the years from 1960 to 2018, they found that the most rapid historical cases of fossil fuel decline happened during the 1970s and 1980s during what entered economic history as an international energy crisis triggered by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC): oil use certainly declined, but to be replaced by coal, gas, or nuclear power. 

“We came to believe that some important lessons can be drawn from there,” said Jessica Jewell, who studies energy transitions at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, and holds a professorial chair at the University of Bergen in Norway. “We were less surprised, but still somewhat impressed, by how fast the use of coal must decline in the future to reach climate targets.”

She and her colleagues also examined recent political pledges to completely phase out coal power, made by 30 countries as part of the Powering Past Coal Alliance.

“We find that these pledges do not aim for faster coal decline than what has occurred historically,” she said. “In other words, they largely plan for business as usual.”