Existing fossil fuel projects enough to meet energy demands while world transitions to net zero – study

Worker holding up a piece of coal in front of a coal firing power plant in the Netherlands. (Reference image by Adrem68, Wikimedia Commons.)

Researchers at the University College London and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) estimate that existing fossil fuel projects are enough to meet predicted energy demands in a global transition to net-zero emissions.

In a policy paper published in the journal Science, the researchers argue that stopping new fossil fuel projects is a crucial step for countries to achieve their climate goals. They recommend that governments legislate to ban new fossil fuel projects as this is easier politically, economically and legally than closing operational projects early.

The team analyzed the projected future global demand for oil and gas production, and for coal- and gas-fired power generation under a range of modelled scenarios that limit climate change to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The group found that existing fossil fuel capacity is sufficient to meet the energy demands under these scenarios while the planet transitions to clean and renewable energy—and that new fossil fuel projects are unnecessary.

The research extends work by the International Energy Agency which found in a 2021 report (updated in 2023) that no new fossil fuel extraction projects are needed in the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.

The new work expands on this by analyzing a broad range of scenarios compiled for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report that limits climate change to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Their analysis found that in addition to not needing new fossil fuel extraction, no new gas- and coal-fired power generation was needed.

Contradictory times

The paper points out that even though in December 2023 UN member nations announced that they agreed in principle to work towards “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems,” since then the global production and use of fossil fuels have continued to expand, with many governments and industry players claiming that new fossil fuel projects will be needed during the transition to net zero.

The new UCL–IISD research contradicts this claim. Thus, the authors recommend a ‘no new fossil fuels’ policy. This would mean preventing new projects for the exploration and extraction of any coal, oil or natural gas reserves. It would also prevent the construction of any new fossil fuel power plants.

Synthesizing evidence from economics, political science, and law, the authors find benefits of this approach for the feasibility of the transition.

Drawing lessons from historical processes of social-moral norm change, the researchers find that governments, by banning new fossil fuel projects, and civil society, by advocating such bans, can help to build a global norm against new fossil fuel projects.

“Our research draws lessons from past shifts in global ethical norms, such as slavery and the testing of nuclear weapons. These cases show that norms resonate when they carry simple demands to which powerful actors can be held immediately accountable,” lead author Fergus Green said in a media statement. “Complex, long-term goals like ‘net-zero emissions by 2050′ lack these features, but ‘no new fossil fuel projects’ is a clear and immediate demand, against which all current governments, and the fossil fuel industry, can rightly be judged. It should serve as a litmus test of whether a government is serious about tackling climate change: if they’re allowing new fossil fuel projects, then they’re not serious.”

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