A global registry on fossil fuel reserves

June 23, 2021

A necessary tool to comply with the Paris agreement.

With the decision to ban the search for new hydrocarbon resources throughout the national territory (land and maritime, including the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf), established in the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law that came into force on 22 May, Spain joins the still small group of countries that are adopting decisive measures to end the fossil fuel era and move towards the decarbonisation of the economy, in compliance with the Paris Agreement.

Spain thus follows in the footsteps of countries such as France, Denmark and New Zealand that have previously taken similar legislative measures. In December 2017, France was the country that took the lead in banning the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons throughout its national territory.

In April 2018, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on further oil and gas exploration in the waters under its jurisdiction. New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone is the fourth largest on the planet and half of the world’s dolphin and whale species live in or transit New Zealand waters, from critically endangered species such as the Maui dolphin to the blue whale, the largest mammal on the planet.

In relation to the marine environment, the ban on the search for hydrocarbon deposits in the sub seabed has multiple environmental benefits, since, among other risks, it means an end to seismic surveys carried out by oil companies using compressed air guns that generate enormous levels of underwater noise causing very negative effects on fauna (including marine mammals, turtles, fish and invertebrates).

In December 2020, Denmark halted further oil and gas exploration in the Danish North Sea as part of a plan to phase out fossil fuel extraction by 2050 (with the unfortunate caveat that the decision does not cover the waters of the Greenland and Faroe Islands self-governing territories).

In other words, the energy transition is beginning to be translated into concrete legal measures. Significantly, shortly after the final vote on 13 May on the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law in the Spanish Parliament, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its report “Net Zero by 2050. A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector” which literally states that, if we are to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 and limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C: “There is no need to invest in new fossil fuel supply projects on our path to net zero by 2050”. The IEA report has its flaws, with its reliance on unproven solutions like carbon capture and storage. But the report is a landmark moment: recognising, as does the Spanish Government, that further expansion of fossil fuel supply is incompatible with tackling climate change globally.

Indeed, allowing new exploration for fossil fuels would only lead to exploitation of the deposits that are eventually discovered. This would prolong the energy transition and worsen the climate crisis, making impossible, or at least significantly delaying, the achievement of the goal, fundamental to our very survival, of a decarbonised, efficient, smart and 100% renewable energy sector by 2050 at the latest.

Conversely, banning fossil fuel exploration activities and initiating a gradual but urgent phase-out of current exploitation activities will have the effect of facilitating and accelerating the large-scale deployment of efficiency and renewables.

To address the climate emergency, the international community adopted the Paris Agreement in December 2015. Its key objective is to achieve a global average temperature increase well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to continue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as the latter would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. Meeting these goals requires decarbonising the global economy by ending our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), which are the main contributors to global warming.

These fuels are responsible for more than 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 90% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The use of the reserves already discovered would lead to CO2 emissions far exceeding the climate limits set out in the Paris Agreement. Despite this, the fossil fuel industry plans to produce approximately 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with a 2°C trajectory, and 120% more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C trajectory.

While countries such as Spain have banned the exploration of new hydrocarbon fields and have set an end date for existing exploitation concessions (in our case, the end of 2042, as established by the aforementioned law) and a number of governments, investment funds and institutions have announced that they will withdraw financial support for fossil fuel projects, the fact is that many other countries continue to plan to maintain – and even increase – fossil fuel production. There is also the point that national bans have their limitations; but governments can go further, as France did with the 2017 Duty Care Law by holding national or quasi-national companies (in France case, Total) accountable for their activities abroad as well.

In order to decarbonise the global economy and achieve climate neutrality on a global scale we would need an International Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty, which, following the nuclear weapons simile, would first force us to stop further aggravating the problem by putting an end to exploration activities and the search for new reserves; second, to initiate a “global disarmament”, i.e. the progressive but urgent cessation of existing exploitation concessions so as not to exceed the “carbon budget” available to comply with the limits imposed by the Paris Agreement; and finally, to develop, in an internationally coordinated manner, the promotion of energy efficiency and access to renewable energies within the framework of global just transition plans.

Surprising as it may seem, we still do not know the total amount of fossil fuel reserves and assets in the world, nor is it clear what plans companies and countries have for extracting them in the short, medium and long term. Without this information, it is very difficult to determine how to phase out the exploitation of fossil fuels in a way that complies with the Paris Agreement.

Therefore, we need to solve the problem of the lack of transparency, both on the part of governments and companies, about the amount of CO2 contained in the fields they are exploiting and those they are planning to exploit. In other words, we need to have a comprehensive and transparent global registry on all fossil fuel assets and reserves. Such a registry would address the current lack of mechanisms in the UN climate change convention to curb the expansion of fossil fuel production.

Such a registry would enable climate risk assessment for both policy makers and investors, and it would in particular -by revealing the embedded CO2 equivalent in projected reserves and production- make governments more accountable and their fossil fuel production more relevant to their national emissions reduction targets.  It would also be a catalyst for public policy debate at national and international level, e.g. on which countries should be the first to phase out all fossil fuel production. All stakeholders need this kind of public information to be able to participate effectively in the discussion on how to fairly allocate the remaining fossil fuels that could still be extracted in a way that is consistent with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

The treaty and global registry would be complementary to Paris which, as we know, contains no mention of fossil fuels. Banning oil and gas exploration Spain has taken a progressive step forward nationally for which it needs to be applauded. Now we call on the Spanish Government to support the creation of this international transparent registry in run-up to the next United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021 (COP26, Glasgow, 1-12 November 2021).

Carlos Bravo (OceanCare’s Ocean Policy Expert) and Mark Campanale (Founder and Chairman of the think-tank Carbon Tracker Initiative)

The OpEd was published on 16th of June 2021 in Spanish in the newspaper EL ESPAÑOL. It can be downloaded here.