‘Managed Decline’ of Fossil Fuel Projects Needed to Meet Goals of Paris Climate Agreement

A new report by Oil Change International calls for an end to both the expansion of fossil fuel industry and new fossil fuel infrastructure

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DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Dharna Noor. A new study released by the Oil Change International, in partnership with fourteen other organizations like, 350.org, Christian Aid, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, seems to add more fuel to the argument that we should, as they say, keep it in the ground. The report called, The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production, calls for an end to fossil fuel industry expansion and new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Joining us from Oakland, California to discuss this report is one of its contributing authors. David Turnbull is the campaigns director for Oil Change International. He also serves as the chair of the board of the US Climate Action Network. Thanks for joining us, David.

DAVID TURNBULL: Great to be here, thanks for having me.

NOOR: So, David, this report takes up the goals set by the climate conference in Paris and says, that to meet them, we need to implement what the report calls, “A managed decline of fossil fuel production.” What is a “managed decline,” what does that entail?

TURNBULL: So what this report shows is that we need to end new fossil fuel development. That is, we cannot get new mines or wells looking for new fossil fuels. Once we establish that, we also need to, basically, manage the decline of the fossil fuel industry. We need to put into place policies and programs to ensure that the fossil fuel industry phases out its current development at time frame, in which, we can actually achieve our climate goals. That includes no new development but it also includes a just transition for the workers that are currently involved in the fossil fuel industry, to ensure that they are supported to move towards the different new industries in renewable industry. Basically, this report says, we need to stop digging if we actually wanna achieve the goals set forth in Paris.

NOOR: Here at The Real News, we’ve reported on a number of studies that have all called for an end to the burning of fossil fuels. But, this report was, sort of, set apart because it was informed by data acquired from Rystad Energy’s UCube, which is an oil industry organization. What exactly did that data prove and why is that data significant?

TURNBULL: This is data that comes from the industry and from analysts that are looking at all the different sources of information to piece together the actual fossil fuel development projects that are out there, around the world. And what we did is we looked at and pieced together all of those different fossil fuel projects and compared that to what the Global Science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is possible if we wanna actually achieve our global warming limits. And what we found is that, the amount of carbon that’s actually embedded in the existing fossil fuel development projects, far out exceeds the amount of carbon that our global scientists say that we can actually emit if we wanna stay below two degrees or one-point-five degrees of warming. So, that’s a pretty stark realization and it’s the first time that anyone has actually looked at the existing production and compared it to our climate imperatives.

NOOR: So lets get a little bit more into that. The Paris Agreement posed what’s called a “carbon budget” of how much carbon can be emitted. How are “carbon budgets” determined and how do they inform us of which fossil fuel deposits can be used and cannot be used?

TURNBULL: The Paris Agreement said that all countries agreed to limit global warming to well below two degrees above preindustrial levels and aim towards one-point-five degrees of warming. Scientists have taken those temperature limits and turned that into so-called “carbon budgets,” that’s the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the globe can absorb and stay within those temperature limits. For two degrees of warming, we have eight hundred gigatons of CO2 that we can emit, moving forward, if we wanna stay below that limit. For one-point-five degrees of warming, that’s down more towards three hundred and fifty-three gigatons of CO2.

What we found with our research is that existing fossil fuel development is almost nine hundred and fifty gigatons. Nine hundred and forty-two gigatons of CO2 that could possibly be dug up and burned if we actually allow the fossil fuel industry to continue their production. So, obviously, nine hundred and forty-two is far larger than either the eight hundred gigatons per two degrees Celsius of global warming or the much more stringent three hundred and fifty-three gigatons per one-point-five.

NOOR: So, let’s talk about exactly how we can reach these goals. I know that Bill McKibben wrote this recent article, Recalculating the Climate Math, subtitled, “The numbers on global warming are even scarier than we thought.” That was based on your study and in it he writes “keeping it in the ground does not mean stopping all production of fossil fuels, instantly, it gives us seventeen years, as well as we’ve already drilled slowly run dry to replace all that oil with renewable energy.”

Is that timeline something you would agree with, based on your study?

TURNBULL: So, what that statement is saying is that, if we allow the existing fossil fuel production to run its course, to steadily decline its output, which is what oil, and coalmines, and oil wells do, they steadily decline in output. If we allow that to run its course, in seventeen years, we’ll have oil production at fifty percent the level that we have it now. That would steadily decline moving forward. That time frame, that would be a good time frame for ramping up renewable energy up to fifty percent globally and then beyond, as we move forward from there. That’s an important time frame. We agree with the idea that we need to see that steady decline and that first step is to stop digging new wells.

NOOR: And talk a little bit more about where that seventeen-year figure came from because some scientists would argue, and have argued, that a fifty percent decline over the next seventeen years isn’t enough. Then others might look at that and say “you’re being so alarmist.” Where exactly did that seventeen years come from?

TURNBULL: We looked at how, generally speaking, fossil fuel mines, oil wells, what the general rates of decline of those wells look like, in practice today. Oil companies drill a mine and they dig up oil at a certain rate and that declines, over time. We used averages and different analysis that shows what sort of rate that would look like and we applied it, of course, to the wells that are out there, around the world.

We’re looking at needing to get off of fossil fuels by the middle of this century. Those first seventeen years, leading up to 2050 are vital in terms of really turning this ship around, really starting to seriously manage decline of the industry and ramping up renewable energy, just as swiftly.

NOOR: I wanna come back to something else that you mentioned about the report, earlier. Those who criticize the implementation of renewable energy and the limiting of the omission in fossil fuel use, often say that those measure come at the cost of jobs. But you’ve spoken about a just transition. Donald Trump, for instance, argued along those lines again in the presidential debate, on Monday. What does that just transition look like? How do we transition workers and communities that financially depend on the fossil fuel sector?

TURNBULL: It’s a really important question; it’s a really important concept. Just transition is actually a concept that labor unions have developed, as much as anyone. Its this idea that people do have jobs in the fossil fuel industry, right now. That’s un-debatetable, its clear, obviously, that’s the case. We need to ensure that those workers are able to transition to new jobs as the fossil fuel industry declines. We need to be investing in worker transition programs and community investments to ensure that communities are brought along into the new renewable energy economy. We can’t leave them behind and continue that boom-and-bust cycle of the fossil fuel industry as we move towards renewables.

Our report puts forward three potential options, as we move forward in terms of climate action. The first option is taking action now. Developing a managed decline and just transition, to actually move away from fossil fuels in an economically efficient and a just manner. The second option is, we wait. We don’t take action now and then years down the line, we take drastic action, which causes economic upheaval and may not even solve the problem. And, of course, the third option is doing nothing. We posit that the first option is the most clear and reasonable and the most effective and just for everyone involved.

NOOR: And again your report has said, and scientists have said that we have until 2050, essentially, to get off of fossil fuels. Going back to the elections, does any candidate in the presidential election, in the U.S., have a climate plan that can get us to that goal?

TURNBULL: Sure. The climate issue was clearly discussed, even at the first debate a couple days ago, where Hillary Clinton said that she had plans to ramp up renewable energy and she mentioned that Donald Trump considered it a hoax. We absolutely hope that the next president has a clear plan and can put forward a plan that will take us in the direction that we need. Hillary has laid out a number of different climate policies that are moving in the right direction. And Donald Trump is being advised by Harold Hamm, energy and oil executive, the founder of fracking, by some accounts. So, the distinction is pretty clear.

NOOR: Some would argue that Hillary Clinton’s past with fracking and with other climate related proposals has been a bit shaky. So, no matter who wins the election in November, what kind of action do people need to take on the ground and at the policy level to ensure that the kind of climate action that we need is taken?

TRUMBULL: The good news is that there’s already a movement that’s really just exploding all around the country to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We’re seeing people stand up at lease sales for fossil fuel companies to buy public lands to dig underneath them, to dig up fossil fuels. We’re seeing amazing action from Native American tribes in North Dakota. Standing Rock standing up against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The movement to keep fossil fuels on the ground is tremendous and its only continuing to grow. We’re really confident that, as a new president comes into office, they’ll look around and they’ll see the writing on the wall that the American public is really demanding serious and strong action to address climate change. The only way that we’re going to address it robustly enough to really safeguard our communities is to keep fossil fuels on the ground. So we hope that the next president will heed that call.

NOOR: Again, David Turnbull is campaigns director for Oil Change International and also serves as the chair of the board of the US Climate Action Network. Thanks so much for joining us, David.

TURNBULL: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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