Canada is among a handful of rich countries that must end its oil and gas production by 2034 if the world is to have even a 50 per cent chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a new report has found.
The report, released Monday on commission from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, offers a framework to wean the world of fossil fuels by targeting 88 producer countries, which together account for nearly 100 per cent of the world’s oil and gas supply.
“The maths are clear: for a 50-50 chance of not exceeding 1.5 C, the carbon budget equates to 10 years of current emissions,” write University of Manchester energy and climate scientists Dan Calverley and Kevin Anderson in the report.
Using data from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the gold standard of climate research — the report distributes the world’s remaining carbon budget between producer countries based on their current level of production and wealth.
The idea is to offer a just transition away from fossil fuels before the planet warms 1.5 C above pre-Industrial levels — the threshold beyond which scientists say the world cannot avoid catastrophic fallout from warming.
“It isn't just yet another report that's reminding us of the work that's cut out for us and how quickly we have to do it. It's a report that's putting some finer definitions on those timelines,” said Catherine Abreu, a former head of Climate Action Network Canada and now executive director of the non-profit Destination Zero.
Fossil fuels and industrial processes accounted for roughly 78 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase from 1970 to 2010, according to the IPCC. And over the past decade, roughly 86 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions emitted globally have come from the production and consumption of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.
As Abreu put it, “This is the crux of how we solve climate change.”
Technologically, transitioning to renewable energy is possible, though the International Energy Agency estimates annual clean energy investments will need to more than triple by 2030 to roughly $4 trillion. That’s more than the world spends annually on the production of fossil fuels.
To re-image entire economies can sound like a daunting proposition.
“Fortunately,” said Abreu, “it isn't anything we haven't seen before.”
“In World War Two, Canada completely retooled our economy over the space of just a few years. And it totally revamped our manufacturing sector so that we were able to respond to the war effort.”
To calculate which nations must move fastest, the researchers subtracted the non-oil per capita wealth of each country. The authors then ranked the 88 producer countries into tiers, from rich countries less reliant on oil and gas production to poorer countries that lean on the resources the most.
The top 19 wealthiest big oil and gas producers — including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia and Germany — would require a 74 per cent cut by 2030, and a complete phase-out of fossil fuels by 2034, according to the phase-out plan. Together, the group produces 35 per cent of global oil and gas.
The report’s second tier includes big oil and gas producers like Chile, Saudi Arabia and Russia. With slightly lower per capita gross domestic products outside of the fossil fuel industry, they have until 2039 to phase out the industry.
Those with a “medium capacity” to transition away from oil and gas, like Mexico, Brazil and China, would have until 2043, while those with “low capacity,” like Indonesia, Iran and Egypt, would have until 2045.
The “lowest capacity” — including nations like Iraq, Libya, Angola and South Sudan, which are highly reliant on oil or gas revenue — were given the longest time, until 2050, to phase out production.
Still, states the report, the pace the world needs to wean itself off oil and gas means many poorer countries “will be hit hard by the loss of revenue with an attendant risk of political instability.”
“It is no longer possible to deliver an equitable division of the small and rapidly shrinking carbon budgets,” note the authors.
For the approach to work, some fossil fuels need to be phased out faster than others, noted the researchers. In developed countries, coal production would need to be cut in half within five years and eliminated by 2030. Developing countries would have another decade.
“For some of those countries, it may be really challenging to stick to these phase-out timelines,” said Abreu. “That only puts the onus more squarely on those countries who have the highest capacity to make this transition.”
“Canada really falls into that camp.”
The researchers say it may be necessary to “fine tune” some of the assumptions they made, but that the data is solid enough to provide a “strong guide” for decarbonization policy across the world.
One potential exception: whether the carbon budget should be expanded to include future carbon dioxide removal “deployed at planetary scale and principally in the second half of the century.”
While some companies look to engineer a path out of the climate crisis, the International Energy Agency has described such technologies as “wild cards.”
Skeptics, meanwhile, say investment in untested technologies can take away from pouring money into proven solutions like wind and solar infrastructure. At its worst, level environmentalists, carbon removal technologies offer an escape route for oil and gas companies to 'greenwash' their operations and continue emitting.
Abreu, for her part, acknowledges that such technologies will have a “limited role” to offset the emissions from hard-to-decarbonize industries, such as shipping, aviation, trucking and the manufacturing of metals like iron.
“We're basically talking about geoengineering our planet,” she said. “And I personally, am not willing to say, ‘Oh, I'm happy to make it the responsibility of future generations to completely geoengineer our planet in order to keep producing fossil fuels in 2022.”
What should require more of the public’s attention, added Abreu, is how renewable energy systems are already providing energy access to citizens who never had it before. She pointed to big economies like India and China but also Europe, where some see the war in Ukraine as a potential pivot point for the continent away from Russian gas.
“This transition is already underway. We're not talking about starting it. What we're talking about is accelerating it,” she said.