While oil and gas companies ramp up the PR around their net zero commitments and try to convince us that fossil fuels can coexist with climate action, the science has long been clear that we need to quit dirty fuels pretty much immediately. One of the world’s biggest energy arbiters now says it agrees.
The International Energy Agency issued a sweeping roadmap on Tuesday showing countries the best possible way to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, a level outlined in the Paris Agreement. In the report, the IEA basically concludes that we need to quit mining coal, pumping oil, and developing new fossil fuel infrastructure as soon as possible. And not just 2030 ASAP. The report finds the best shot for meeting emissions targets will require stopping investments in new oil and gas fields and new coal plants by next year (!). This year is, the report says, “a critical year at the start of a critical decade for these efforts.”
For those who don’t spend all day thinking about international energy policy (good for you), this may sound pretty obvious. But the IEA issuing this kind of advice is huge. The organisation is basically as pure a capitalist-oriented enterprise as you can get: It was founded in the 1970s following the oil crisis in part to ensure oil supply to the U.S., and Henry Kissinger played a part in its origin story. IEA reports and outlooks — which, until now, have not been consistent with keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius — are cited by and used as a basis for decisions from all sorts of financial organisations, governments, and major fossil fuel companies. The new report represents a huge shift in how the world could treat fossil fuels.
“I’d say the oil and gas industry has lost one of their more powerful shields because of the IEA’s effect in steering oil and gas development around the world,” said Kelly Trout, a research analyst at Oil Change International. “We’ve seen governments and businesses use IEA scenarios to justify new pipeline expansions, Arctic drilling. … Essentially, this is a huge breakthrough moment to now have the IEA say the reverse of that.”
This report, Trout said, is so different from the IEA’s past positions simply because they actually sat down to do the maths this time on what’s realistically needed to for the world to meet the Paris Agreement targets after facing increasing calls from diplomats, businesses, and advocacy groups to realign their viewpoints.
“The IEA has finally recognised that their credibility in terms of their position as a global advisor on climate and the energy transition was dependent on them finally stepping up to model where a 1.5-aligned energy transition would look like,” Trout said.
Companies like BP, Exxon, Shell, and Occidental have all argued that they are committed to the climate change fight, rolling out a slew of investments in carbon removal and carbon capture technologies while introducing terms like “carbon-neutral oil” (whatever that means). Fossil fuels, oil companies like to argue, are simply too essential to do away with for good; technologies to undo what we’ve already done are going to be the real key to fighting climate change.
This position has been bolstered by billionaires like Bill Gates, who has been excitedly advocating pouring money into developing new technologies to suck carbon from the sky while dragging their feet on things like fossil fuel divestment.
“There’s no possibility of getting rid of fossil fuels in 10 years,” Gates told Politico in February. “That’s anti-reality as much as denying that there is such a thing as a climate crisis.”
Yet focusing on moonshot technologies ignores the important work of avoiding emissions today, which are much important in the near term to putting the world on a course aligned with the Paris Agreement goals. Technologies to remove carbon from the air “play an appropriately small but important role” in the IEA’s new report, David Morrow, the director of research at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University, said in an email. Morrow pointed out that the IEA calculates that carbon removal technologies could help remove around 5% of global emissions every year by 2050.
“Almost all of the work to get to net-zero involves cutting emissions, not carbon removal,” Morrow said. “That’s as it should be. Still, carbon removal is important because it closes the gap to get us all the way to net zero.”
The IEA report makes it clear that as hard as companies like Shell or Exxon may work to convince the public that its product can coexist with climate commitments, the only real solution to keeping warming in check is quitting fossil fuels right now. With the world’s major energy arbiter now sounding the call to phase out dirty fuels, the possibility of getting rid of those fuels is becoming more of a reality.
“The claim about the world continuing to use fossil fuels for decades to come seems a bit like someone saying in 1921 that the world will continue to use horses for decades to come,” Morrow said. “Strictly speaking, it’s true, but it underplays the sea change that’s already underway.“