The world’s greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed quickly and significantly to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century — a target that would still have potentially devastating impacts on the planet and people.
And that is the best of five possible scenarios laid out in a major report released this week by the United Nations-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The report describes an alarming present of “weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe” triggered by “human-induced climate change”, including heatwaves, floods, droughts and tropical cyclones.
Each incremental rise in temperature will make those extremes more severe, said IPCC in the report, the first in a series of documents that will make up the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report.
“Stabilising the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions,” said IPCC working group co-chairman Panmao Zhai.
“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming.”
Using more forceful language than previous assessments, the report cites “unequivocal” evidence that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”.
The report focuses on the physical science behind the warming trend and aims to provide policymakers with information that they could use to help mitigate additional temperature increases and the accompanying social and environmental impacts.
Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require “rapid and far-reaching" changes in land use, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities, IPCC said.
Human-caused carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
“Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, which is focusing on climate change mitigation.
The report follows on from a study released in May by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that outlined various pathways to net zero emissions by 2050 and further ratchets up pressure on the oil and gas industry.
However, the response from industry has so far been muted, with some of the majors queried by Upstream saying they have no immediate comment and few official statements issued by companies or industry groups.
The trade group OGUK was an exception. Noting the report’s emphasis on the physical sciences underlying climate change, the group said: “The UK’s oil and gas industry, which is itself founded on engineering and science, supports the findings and its conclusion that the world must urgently move to a future based around low-carbon technologies.”
The group said the UK continental shelf is “rapidly emerging as a global centre for the development of these technologies”, including carbon capture and storage and hydrogen production.
If the IPCC report itself presents a grim but rational assessment, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had a more emotional message while calling for pursuit of “the most ambitious path” to limit warming.
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” Guterres said.
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”
Norwegian Oil & Gas Association (Norog) director for climate and environment Hildegunn Blindheim said the report confirms the seriousness of climate change.
However, she said exploration will still be needed to avoid a steep drop in production on the Norwegian continental shelf and the resulting economic fallout.
“The Norwegian oil and gas industry will take its share of the responsibilities and we have set significant targets to reduce emissions from our activities by 40% by 2030 and near zero in 2050,” she told Upstream.
Blindheim echoed the OGUK in saying that it is also necessary to reduce emissions in the use of oil and gas.
“We are working on solutions like hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. In addition to this, we are developing new industries like floating offshore wind and extraction of seabed minerals,” she said.
Eirick Waerness, senior vice president and chief economist at Norway’s Equinor, said he was surprised that Guterres suggested that all new exploration and production should be halted without addressing demand.
“What is surprising is that he solely focuses on supply side measures, even when he talks about the need to reduce use of fossil fuels,” Waerness told Upstream.
The secretary general’s statement appears to be at odds with access to affordable and reliable energy, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals the UN put forth in 2015, he said.
“If we stopped all new oil and gas developments now, the world would not get access to all the energy there is demand for, and it would result in much higher energy prices, almost immediately,” Waerness said.
Global oil production typically declines by 5% to 10% each year, he said, so a halt to exploration and production would mean demand would have to fall by 5 million to 10 million barrels annually to keep pace and avoid sharp increases in energy prices.
Supply would fall even faster if the UN Secretary General’s statement also referred to investments in existing fields, such as infill drilling and other measures to maximise output, Waerness added.
To focus on the supply side is to start at the wrong end, he said.
“IEA’s Net Zero 2050 report and our own Rebalance scenario, which also have almost net zero emissions in 2050, focus on the need to enable an energy transition in a sustainable direction, while also enabling economic growth and development in line with all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.