Fossil fuels: Borrowed time

The world is set to produce over twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C

By Rajit Sengupta
Published: Tuesday 26 October 2021

One of the unfortunate aspects of the climate crisis is the fact that early intervention could have prevented it. While governments world over have been discussing how to handle the crisis for more than three decades now, they continue to fixate on fossil fuel-led development.

The United Nations’ Production Gap Report 2021, released on October 20, 2021 factors in the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and states that countries are on the path to producing more than double the amount of fossil fuels (around 110 per cent) in 2030 than would be consistent with the median 1.5°C-warming pathway and 45 per cent more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with the median 2°C-warming pathway.

What is worse, the gap will grow post-2030 because of the renewed investments in fossil fuels made by several countries after the pandemic.

By 2040, countries’ plans and projections show 190 per cent more fossil fuels than would be consistent with the median 1.5°C pathway and 89 per cent more than the median 2°C pathway, says the report, which looks at by how much the governments intend to exceed the supply of fossil fuels that can be safely burnt in the coming decades.

“As part of their COVID-19 responses, governments have provided support to the production of fossil fuels through new tax incentives, guarantees, regulatory changes and other financial support, largely without accompanying social, economic, or environmental requirements,” says the report.

Between January 2020 and June 2021, as many as 31 countries have added over $55 billion in support of the production of fossil fuels. Such commitments have long-lasting impacts “locking in fossil-fuel-intensive energy systems with equipment lifetimes of 10-50 years”.

Sources: United Nations 2021 Emissions Gap and Production Gap reportsThe commitments include, for example, a special COVID-19 tax introduced in Argentina to raise $479 million for new gas production and Canada’s creation of the Oil and Gas Industry Recovery Assistance Fund, which has allocated $241 million to activities such as facility maintenance and upgrades for an offshore energy sector.

Meanwhile, China is touting unconventional gas as clean fossil energy, and Russia is branding its Arctic oil as green. Norway and the UK intend to maximise economic recovery of their remaining oil and gas resources, as per Ploy Achakulwisut, one of the lead authors of the report.

While fossil fuel production continues unabated, individual commitments made by countries to cut their emissions are also far from satisfactory. This is worrisome as these voluntary commitments are in fact much more ambitious than the current production levels.

The “Emissions Gap Report 2021”, another UN report released a week later, shows that the new nationally determined contributions (NDCs), combined with other mitigation pledges, put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century, even if all new unconditional commitments are met.


Note: 1 barrel is 158.98 litres

“Additional implementation of net-zero targets could reduce global warming by another 0.5°C, but these plans are currently ambiguous and not fully reflected in NDCs. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the world needs to urgently put additional policies and actions in place to almost halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years,” it says.


The inaction by countries world over is unpardonable, as fossil fuels are something governments have substantial control over. Countries, either directly or through state-owned companies, are responsible for over half of the world’s fossil fuel production. The remaining half is closely moderated by their policies and permits.

To quantify the production gap, the UN report looks individually at three fossil fuel components: coal, oil and gas. It says that global coal, oil and gas production should annually decrease by 11 per cent, 4 per cent, and 3 per cent respectively between 2020 and 2030 to limit warming to 1.5°C.

The reality is much worse. By 2030, the world, at the current pace, would produce 240 per cent more coal, 57 per cent more oil, and 71 per cent more gas than consistent with the median 1.5°C-warming pathway; and 120 per cent more coal, 14 per cent more oil and 15 per cent more gas than consistent with the median 2°C-warming pathway.

The low commitment levels can be gauged by the fact that countries are planning to produce 5.3 gigatonnes more coal in 2030 than would be consistent with the median 1.5°C-warming pathway. The surplus is roughly equivalent to 75 per cent of current levels of global coal production.

The production gap for oil is also substantial. Nations are planning on producing around 40 million barrels (6.36 billion litres) per day more oil than would be consistent with the 1.5°C pathway in 2030. This excess is roughly equivalent to half of the current global oil production. Similarly, for gas, countries are planning on producing 2 trillion cubic metres more in 2030 than would be consistent with the median 1.5°C-warming pathway. This excess is roughly equivalent to half of the current global gas production.

As the world meets at the 26th Conference of the Parties (CoP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with this high fossil fuel dependency, it is going to be the last opportunity for the world to limit global warming.

This was first published in the 1-15 November, 2021 edition of Down To Earth


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