Climate change is an enormous, overwhelmingly complex problem, but it is also very simple. It is caused mainly by one activity: burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and methane gas. So you would think fossil fuels are always at the forefront of how scientists communicate about the climate crisis to the public. But no. This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2023 Synthesis Report, summarizing the latest scientific knowledge about the climate crisis. For the first time in the IPCC’s history, a headline statement of its summary for policymakers declared that the world already has too many fossil fuels in production to limit global warming to the relatively safe level of 1.5 degrees Celsius. As this global body of scientists put it, “projected CO2 emissions from existing fossil-fuel infrastructure without additional abatement would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C.”
This finding isn’t new, but its new prominence is a very big deal. The danger of burning fossil fuels has been the open secret of international climate politics. The Paris Agreement, in which more than 190 countries agreed to that 1.5-degree target, doesn’t even mention coal, oil or methane gas. Instead, world leaders have hidden behind more nebulous reductions of “emissions” — pollution produced by fossil energy combustion along with, to a lesser degree, other human activities, such as mining and agriculture.
This finding isn’t new, but its new prominence is a very big deal.
In this way, these leaders have sustained the fiction that they can support ongoing fossil fuel extraction yet still abide by their countries’ climate commitments. President Joe Biden, for example, signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which gives tax breaks to clean energy producers and consumers, but he also recently approved Chevron’s application to build enormous oil drills in some of Alaska’s last untouched public lands. The latter project is projected to add 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming gases to the atmosphere every year, the equivalent of adding 2 million gasoline-powered cars to the road every year.
The misdirection has affected even the IPCC itself. Under U.N. rules, the panel’s reports need to be approved by all countries that have ratified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the treaty establishing the rules and principles governing international climate negotiations. That means fossil fuel-producing countries from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia can edit the research product of thousands of physical and social scientists.
Past IPCC reports have included similarly explicit warnings about the danger of fossil fuels. But thanks to governmental editing, those warnings ran deep in the weeds of its full reports, which run thousands of pages, rather than the much shorter summary for policymakers. The one mention of fossil fuels in its previous summary only raised fears of stranded assets.
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But it seems scientists are sick of being ignored. By saying loud and clear that projected emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure — what we have now, before even one more oil well, gas plant or coal mine is built — would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5 degrees, the IPCC has shown the world that fossil fuel development must cease immediately. Otherwise, it will be impossible to cut emissions in half by 2030, as needed to meet the 1.5-degree threshold.
Of course, fossil fuel-producing countries are still trying to find wiggle room. In the final days of this report’s approval process, Saudi Arabia pushed for language specifying that “fossil-fuel infrastructure without additional abatement” is dangerous. Those last three words leave the door open for these countries to claim that they can “abate” fossil fuel production with carbon capture or carbon removal.
The IPCC’s statement signals the time for playing pretend is over.
But the report’s headline statement also states that carbon dioxide removal leads to “feasibility and sustainability concerns.” Carbon capture technology has never captured more than a fraction of emissions at fossil energy power plants. Other wide-scale carbon removal techniques under development, such as direct air capture, use unsustainably large amounts of land and energy. And even if “sustainability concerns” are addressed, wide-scale carbon removal would become available only later this century. To halt warming at a relatively safe level, the world needs to achieve global net zero CO₂ emissions in less than 30 years.
The IPCC’s statement signals the time for playing pretend is over. No country or leader can excuse more new coal, oil or gas development with fossil fuel producers’ false promises of magically effective technologies to reduce or recapture fossil energy emissions. The world must halt new fossil fuel development and dismantle current fossil energy infrastructure in a way that is fair to workers in the industry and people in the developing world. And this must be done now, so we can give our children a livable world.