Study warns nearly half of fossil fuel sites need to be shut down to avoid climate disaster

How can we stay below the 1.5C threshold?
Loukia Papadopoulos
A large flame and dark smoke rising from a flare stack at Grangemouth oil refinery.georgeclerk/iStock

A new study published on May 17 has revealed that nearly half of all existing fossil fuel production sites need to be closed down if global warming is to stay below the 1.5C threshold, the internationally agreed-upon target for avoiding a climate disaster. The research indicates that just halting the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure is simply not enough.

A rapidly dwindling carbon budget

“Our findings show that halting new extraction projects is a necessary step, but still not enough to stay within our rapidly dwindling carbon budget,” Greg Muttitt of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a co-author of the new study, said in a press release. “Some existing fossil fuel licenses and production will need to be revoked and phased out early.”

“Governments need to start tackling head-on how to do this in a fair and equitable way, which will require overcoming opposition from fossil fuel interests,” Muttitt added.

The study is based on a commercial model of the world’s 25,000 oil and gas fields. It highlights that 40 percent of fossil fuel reserves at currently operational development sites across the world must be left in the ground to avoid a climate catastrophe.

However, the research fails to pinpoint which existing development sites should be closed, stating simply that “it requires considerations of equity and of the best mechanisms to manage a just transition away from fossil fuel jobs and revenues within and between countries.”

The Russo-Ukrainian war is making matters worse

The research comes as the war in Ukraine is pushing nations to produce more fossil fuels. This says Kelly Trout, Oil Change International’s research co-director and leader of the study, is a very dangerous development.

“Our study reinforces that building new fossil fuel infrastructure is not a viable response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The world has already tapped too much oil, gas, and coal. Developing more would either cause more dangerous levels of warming, if fully extracted, or create a larger scale of stranded assets," explained Trout in the statement.

However, the study did not take into account how much CO2 could be removed from the atmosphere by future advancements in technologies such as carbon capture and storage. This could serve as a key avenue for reducing emissions, but Muttit told The Guardian that these developments remain as of yet untested.

“These technologies are unproven at scale,” said Muttitt. “There’s a lot of talk about them, but we believe it would be a mistake to predicate achieving climate goals on these being delivered at a very large scale. We just don’t know whether it will be possible in terms of financing or governance.”

In the meantime, people around the world continue to suffer due to emissions. In February of 2021, a study found that 8.7 million people globally died in 2018 as a result of breathing polluted air that contains particles from fossil fuels.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


The Paris climate goals and the Glasgow Climate Pact require anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to decline to net-zero by mid-century. This will require overcoming carbon lock-in throughout the energy system. Previous studies have focused on 'committed emissions' from capital investments in energy-consuming infrastructure, or potential (committed and uncommitted) emissions from fossil fuel reserves. Here we make the first bottom-up assessment of committed CO2 emissions from fossil fuel-producing infrastructure, defined as existing and under-construction oil and gas fields and coal mines. We use a commercial model of the world's 25 000 oil and gas fields and build a new dataset on coal mines in the nine largest coal-producing countries. Our central estimate of committed emissions is 936 Gt CO2, comprising 47% from coal, 35% from oil, and 18% from gas. We find that staying within a 1.5 °C carbon budget (50% probability) implies leaving almost 40% of 'developed reserves' of fossil fuels unextracted. The finding that developed reserves substantially exceeds the 1.5 °C carbon budget is robust to a Monte Carlo analysis of reserves data limitations, carbon budget uncertainties, and oil prices. This study contributes to growing scholarship on the relevance of fossil fuel supply to climate mitigation. Going beyond recent warnings by the International Energy Agency, our results suggest that staying below 1.5 °C may require governments and companies not only to cease licensing and development of new fields and mines but also to prematurely decommission a significant portion of those already developed.

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