Shell, BP and other fossil fuel companies’ emission targets aren’t enough to stop 1.5°C of warming, study finds

Fossil fuel companies have done an about-face recently, with many committing to lower their emissions and clean up their act as long they’re allowed to keep running.

But according to new research published in Nature Communications, commitments by big companies like BP and Shell are not enough to actually hit the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Using “grey literature” such as reports, working papers, white papers, and government documents, the researchers assessed a total of six emissions mitigation scenarios from Equinor, Shell, BP and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA isn’t a fossil fuel company like the rest, instead it’s an intergovernmental organisation that provides policy recommendations to countries. Recently it’s also been advising on how to cut emissions.

“For the most part, the institutional pathways analysed here do not achieve the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal or do so with substantial interim overshoot. Primarily, this is due to a continued reliance on fossil fuels,” the international team of researchers, including from The University of Melbourne, write in their paper.

“For example, although the use of coal shows a steep decline in all pathways, it is notable … that the role of natural gas is less clear, demonstrating a large range of uncertainty in the various pathway categories.”

Read more: Gas price crisis: what is the fossil fuel’s future?

The researchers compared their fossil fuel company assessments with ‘Integrated Assessment Model’ scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The scenarios were assessed against three criteria.

The first was having less than 66 per cent probability to overshoot 1.5°C of warming and a 50 per cent chance of meeting 1.5°C by the end of the century.

The second was being 90 per cent or better to limit warming below 2°C.

The third was achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions before the end of the century.  

The team suggest five of the emissions mitigation scenarios assessed overshoot the 1.5°C warming limit by a very large margin and, of the six scenarios, only the IEA’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ scenario is aligned with the Paris Agreement target.

Although this seems dire, the researchers stress that knowing this is the first part of the battle because these companies all had these scenarios available so scientists can analyse them to see if they are actually appropriate.

“The trend in the scientific community is towards full data and model transparency, an increasingly important part of the science-policy interface,” the researchers write.  

“In the case of claims on pathway compatibility with international climate agreements, this transparency should extend to the data and assumptions required to confirm such statements.” Now it’s up to the companies to reassess, remodel and try again; or for governments to get involved to ensure that these companies’ commitments actually give us a shot at limiting the worst of global warming.

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