A recent Guardian investigation finds that major oil and gas companies are quietly planning 195 projects (“carbon bombs”) that could trigger catastrophic climate breakdown.
A study, led by Kjell Kühne (Geography), published in the journal Energy Policy, found that just a few months after many politicians positioned themselves as climate leaders at COP26 in Glasgow, they were giving the green light to a massive expansion of oil and gas production that scientists say could push civilisation to the brink. This study was one of the key resources for the Guadian Exclusive we’re zooming in on this week.
(A quick explainer: While the term “carbon bomb” has been widely used in climate circles for the past decade to describe large fossil fuel projects, the new research sets a specific definition: “Projects capable of pumping at least 1bn tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes.”)
The Guardian report
As part of their five-month investigation following last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the Guardian’s climate journalists have put together a report of planned future oil and gas projects. Based on this research, the world’s major fossil fuel firms are quietly planning “carbon bomb” projects which the Guardian estimates are set to obliterate global climate targets with 646 billion tons of carbon emissions, “swallowing up the world’s entire carbon budget” and triggering “catastrophic climate breakdown.”
In a podcast with Damian Carrington, Guardian’s environment editor, it is revealed that the most striking revelation in this investigation is that these huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions. Essentially, these companies are betting billions on the world ultimately failing to reduce emissions…
What are climate groups saying?
In response to the “carbon bombs,” several hundred climate protestors gathered on Wednesday to blockade the Salle Pleyel in Paris, France, where the TotalEnergies Annual General Meeting of Shareholders (AGM) was to be held. They demanded that the French oil and gas major put an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects and retreat from Russia.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace, an international climate advocacy organization, warned in response to the new reporting that “while governments dither and discuss, fossil fuel companies are charging full speed ahead with ‘carbon bomb’ projects, pushing us ever closer to an irreversible tipping point.”
“We need action now,” the group wrote on Twitter.
The world's #climate scientists scream "no more drilling" but oil majors, like Exxon & Shell, just carry on drilling. They are destroying your future. They are doing it deliberately. They have been doing that for decades. #ClimateEmergency #ClimateAction https://t.co/jl7naAG8xv
— Andy Rowell (@andy_rowell) May 11, 2022
🚨This should be on the front page of every single newspaper!🚨
How many times will the UN, scientists, *some* politicians and media have to tell us that we are "heading for catastrophic climate breakdown" before everyone else listens and acts like it?!https://t.co/gzlnxr8ots
— JustStopOil (@JustStop_Oil) May 11, 2022
According to the report, the projects on their own would emit enough planet-heating gases into the atmosphere to take the planet’s temperature way over the 1.5°C limit set forth by the Paris Agreement in 2015. Unsurprisingly, the country with the most emissions planned is the United States, with a total of 22 “carbon bombs.”
As the Guardian explains, these 22 American “carbon bombs” would account for over a fifth of potential emissions from all the planned “carbon bombs” globally.
“What will happen in the U.S. will impact the world, and the decisions made about these projects will determine the climate for generations to come around the planet. If 140 billion metric tons of CO2 is released from the U.S., that will have global ramifications for many years to come,” said Oliver Milman, a reporter for The Guardian who co-wrote the report.
A quick summary of the key findings:
1. The fossil fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans involve the start of oil and gas projects that will produce greenhouse gases equivalent to a decade of CO2 emissions from China, the world’s biggest polluter.
2. These plans include 195 carbon bombs, and gigantic oil and gas projects that would each result in at least a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes, in total equivalent to about 18 years of current global yearly CO2 emissions.
3. The twelve biggest oil companies are on track to collectively spend $387m a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas. Six of the twelve biggest oil companies are totally or partly owned by governments who have agreed to the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, all while simultaneously planning fossil fuel projects that will make that goal impossible to achieve.
4. The US, Canada, and Australia are among the countries with the biggest expansion plans and the highest number of carbon bombs. These three countries also give some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.
5. Despite the urgent warnings from scientists that greenhouse gas emissions will have a highly negative impact on the world’s climate, 60% of these gigantic oil and gas projects have already started. Governments have the power to stop the remaining 40% of the projects that have not started yet.
6. The oil and gas industry is extraordinarily profitable, particularly when prices are high globally, as they are at present. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron have made almost $2tn in profits in the past three decades, with the recent price increases leading the head of BP to describe the company as a “cash machine.”
7. Although electric alternatives are quickly coming onto the market, the global switch won’t come right away. The world is still dependent on the fossil fuel industry, which means that there is still plenty of demand for oil and gas.
Race against time
“There’s this lack of alignment between what governments are promising and what the industry is doing. We’re making a lot of promises as a planet on dealing with climate change, but in terms of the reality of what’s happening, we’re moving rapidly in the wrong direction,” Oliver Milman, co-writer of the report.
The conclusion of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is clear: it is “now or never” for governments and companies to implement policies that will cut down carbon emissions globally. Yet, the exact opposite is happening.
“The world is in a race against time,” Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres said during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “It is time to end fossil fuel subsidies and stop the expansion of oil and gas exploration.” He added, “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”
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