These are frightening times. It is shocking to learn that just a few months after the show of international common purpose at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, countries including the US, Canada and Australia are among those with the most destructive oil and gas projects, threatening to shatter the target of limiting global heating to 1.5C. A Guardian investigation has revealed that the world’s biggest fossil fuel firms have 195 “carbon bomb” projects that would each emit at least 1bn tonnes of CO2 – and that 60% are already under way. Only last month, the International Committee on Climate Change warned that the world is on course to overshoot the 1.5C target, prompting António Guterres, the UN secretary general, to describe governments investing in new fossil fuels as “dangerous radicals”. On Monday, a new forecast warned that the probability of one of the next five years exceeding the 1.5C limit was 50%.
In the face of these stakes, and this evidence, the actions of the world’s biggest energy companies are perplexing as well as enraging. Why are energy giants continuing to invest in fossil fuel projects capable of causing such colossal harm? One expert suggests “a form of cognitive dissonance” is behind the refusal or inability of governments, as well as businesses, to change course in spite of the risks. Another says the scale of planned production suggests oil companies are still in denial about global heating, whatever they publicly claim – or have “complete disregard for the more climate vulnerable communities, typically poor, people of colour and far away from their lives”. One climate activist attributed such recklessness to a “colonial mindset”, which could equally be described as genocidal given the severity of the expected consequences of unchecked heating.
The victory of President Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020’s US election led to hopes of a new dawn for global climate cooperation. But West Virginia’s Democrat senator Joe Manchin sank the president’s Build Back Better bill, which included climate measures. Our research, based on industry data, shows that far from reducing its emissions, the US has 22 mega-projects in the pipeline. American drivers, along with Australians, Canadians and Saudis, are also the world’s biggest beneficiaries of subsidies for road fuels.
Leaders including Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro have worked with Middle Eastern petrostates to derail emissions reduction efforts. Leading the table for near-term expansion of oil and gas are Qatar Energy, Russia’s Gazprom, and Saudi Aramco. But many of the carbon bombs are under the jurisdiction of western governments that are theoretically signed up to solving the climate problem. A 2009 pledge by the G20 to phase out subsidies has been ignored. Chinese companies have also invested heavily in oil and gas exploration.
It is long past time to admit that our global energy system is itself a bomb. Unchecked greed is driving us ever closer to the abyss. Both separately and together, governments must find ways to promote the long-term health of the planet over short-term profit. There is no alternative but to force companies to write off the most dangerous investments. Of course, this will cause an economic shock, but advances in renewables mean there are options other than carbon addiction. Total emissions must fall by half by 2030, if the worst scenarios are to be avoided. To continue on our current course would be nihilistic. The carbon bomb-makers must be stopped.