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A ‘No New Fossil’ norm

New report recommends a new global norm to end new fossil fuel projects, confirming no more are needed in the transition to net zero
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Aerial photography of photovoltaic panels on a mountain, China

Existing fossil fuel projects are sufficient to meet projected energy demands in a global transition to net zero emissions, according to a new study by researchers from University College London (UCL) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

Their policy paper, published in Science, argues that stopping new fossil fuel projects is a crucial step for countries to achieve their climate goals.

It recommends that governments legislate to ban new fossil fuel projects as this is easier politically, economically and legally than closing operational projects early.

Existing capacity ‘sufficient’

The researchers analysed 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 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.

The team 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 not necessary.

‘Oil bosses are rowing back their climate commitments while scaremongering about the need to expand fossil fuel production, but this timely report confirms this is just a desperate attempt to protect their bottom lines. The science clearly shows that new fossil fuel projects are not only unnecessary, they will exacerbate global climate chaos which is overwhelmingly impacting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.
 
‘With the mercury soaring from New Delhi to Nevada, the climate crisis is being felt across the globe. We urgently need bold international leadership, which forces the fossil fuel industry to stop drilling and to start paying for the damage it is causing around the world.’

CHARLIE KRONICK
Senior climate advisor at Greenpeace UK

Building on the IEA report

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 research team’s new work expands on this by analysing a broad range of scenarios compiled for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report that limit climate change to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels

Their analysis found that in addition to not needing new fossil fuel extraction, no new coal- and gas-fired power generation was needed.

‘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.

‘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.’

DR FERGUS GREEN

Lead author, UCL Department of Political Science

Rhetoric vs practice

The research comes at a time of growing contradictions between rhetoric and practice concerning the energy transition. At COP28 in December 2023, UN member nations announced that they agreed in principle to work towards ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems.’

However, since that proclamation was announced, the global production and use of fossil fuels has continued to expand, with many governments and fossil fuel industry players claiming that new fossil fuel projects will be needed during the transition to net zero.

The new UCL–IISD research contradicts that claim.

‘Our research draws on a large range of scientific evidence, including climate scenarios from the IPCC, but its message to governments and fossil fuel companies is very simple: There is no room for new fossil fuel projects in a 1.5°C-aligned world. Achieving the Paris Agreement goals means governments need to stop issuing permits for new fossil fuel exploration, production, or power generation projects.’

GREG MUTTITT
Co-author, senior associate, IISD

Building a new global norm

The researchers go on to recommend a ‘no new fossil fuels’ policy, that 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.

Synthesising evidence from economics, political science and law, the authors find benefits of this approach for the feasibility of the transition: stopping new projects is less costly, faces fewer legal hurdles and is politically easier than trying to phase out existing capacity early.

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.

‘No new fossil fuel projects are necessary to meet the 1.5°C-aligned energy demand. Representative 1.5°C scenarios show that a significant share of existing fossil fuel capital stock will become stranded if we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Establishing a ‘No New Fossil’ norm increases the likelihood of staying within the 1.5°C limit while minimising the economic, political and legal challenges associated with ‘stranding’ fossil fuel capacity.’

OLIVIER BOIS VON KURSK
Co-author, policy advisor, IISD

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