Wanted: a sense of proportion [NGW Magazine]
World leaders were largely united at last week’s UN climate summit in calling for tougher action to cut emissions and keep global warming below the 2 oC increase that scientists warn is a “tipping point”. Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, countries need to commit by 2020 to more aggressive emissions reduction plans, referred to as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
On the positive side, several countries – South Korea, Germany and the UK included – announced plans to boost contributions to the UN’s Green Climate Fund. Together with donations from Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France and Canada, GCF’s next tranche of funding is set to exceed $7bn
But the progress announced at the summit was largely hollow and some governments’ actions to date, notably in the European Union, are counter-productive. Their regulations have merely led to the export of manufacturing so the CO2 is emitted far away.
True, 70 countries did commit to drawing up tougher NDCs in 2020, up from 23 prior to the summit. But these nations only account for a combined 6.8% of emissions. And the EU’s efforts alone are largely irrelevant, as they now account for just 9%, if the carbon emissions implied by its imports of steel and so on are discounted.
Among the world’s three largest emitters, China and India look set to meet their 2030 targets, but these are not challenging. While China said it would “faithfully fulfil its obligations” under the 2015 agreement, it did not announce any additional steps to curbing emissions at the summit.
China has doubled down on the development of renewables over recent years, leading the way in clean energy deployment. It likewise has decommissioned dozens of coal-fired plants, while promoting gas as its replacement in the energy sector. However, slowing economic growth could derail its green push. And even by China’s own forecasts, coal is set to remain a staple fuel for decades to come: it will probably need cheap coal to offset renewables, as Germany found out in its expensive, pioneering work on the energy transition.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi touted plans to more than double India’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. India’s original Paris goals are in line with the 2 oC limit, but like China, India did not signal it would get tougher on emissions, and while coal is cheaper than gas, it is going to be a big part of the mix. Russia, the world’s fourth leading emitter, has already met its 2030 target, which was set against a baseline in the closing months of the Soviet Union, when its emissions were at an all-time high.
One country to grab attention was peat-burning Ireland, whose PM Leo Varadkar announced at the summit that offshore oil exploration would be phased out. Varadkar said the decision was guided by recommendations from Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council, which concluded oil was “incompatible with a low-carbon future,” even though it is for now an essential part of life.
But the search for gas – “a transition fuel that will be needed for decades to come” – can continue while alternatives are developed and fully deployed.
Ireland has been producing gas for decades, with a handful of large-sized fields meeting around 60% of its supply. To date no oilfields have been brought into commercial production, although Providence Resources and its partners are hoping to achieve this at the Barryroe project off Cork. So far there is no oil production.
Pushback against oil and gas exploration is nothing new. Varadkar’s own government killed a bill in July that would have imposed a blanket ban on offshore permits. This Climate Emergency Bill, drawn up by opposition politicians, would have been unworkable, likely resulting in Ireland having to make sizeable compensation payments to operators.
That is quite apart from the difficulties of attracting exploration for gas if the investment could well turn out to be an oil discovery.
The government’s moratorium is therefore at best purely symbolic – as Ireland is yet to demonstrate the commerciality of its oil resources – and at worst disruptive to gas exploration, as gas-focused players will find it hard to persuade their boards of the wisdom of investing in unpredictable countries.
Perversely, opposition to upstream development across Europe is on the rise. Producers in the UK have been unable even to attempt to replicate the US’ success with unconventional oil and gas, as NGOs such as Greenpeace remain hostile to all forms of fossil fuel production and mobilise local residents. Would-be shale gas developers say the regulatory traffic light system using minute seismic thresholds was designed to make hydraulic fracturing uneconomic. Reports say the owners of Cuadrilla Resources are eyeing its sale. Slovenia-focused Ascent Resources is suing the government for not approving an agreed fracturing plan.
Scotland has imposed a moratorium on fracturing. And Italy ordered oil and gas activity to halt in February for an 18-month review. Cabot Energy and Shell are therefore withdrawing from an onshore block.
The irony is that many countries imposing restrictions on upstream activities have far more regulations in place on emissions than much larger gas producers elsewhere in the world – contributing further to the so-called carbon leakage. And exporting dollars leaves their own economies less equipped to cut emissions. They also tacitly accept the higher overall emissions that arise as gas flows or is shipped from the distant well-head to the local burner tip. We have to hope that the situation will be very different with batteries – hazardous at every stage of the process – on which so much depends.