Revealed: the ‘carbon bombs’ set to trigger catastrophic climate breakdown
The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.
The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital.
The oil and gas industry is extremely volatile but extraordinarily profitable, particularly when prices are high, as they are at present. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron have made almost $2tn in profits in the past three decades, while recent price rises led BP’s boss to describe the company as a “cash machine”.
The lure of colossal payouts in the years to come appears to be irresistible to the oil companies, despite the world’s climate scientists stating in February that further delay in cutting fossil fuel use would mean missing our last chance “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned world leaders in April: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.”
Details of the projects being planned are not easily accessible but an investigation published in the Guardian shows:
- The fossil fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans involve the start of oil and gas projects that will produce greenhouse gases equivalent to a decade of CO2 emissions from China, the world’s biggest polluter.
- These plans include 195 carbon bombs, gigantic oil and gas projects that would each result in at least a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes, in total equivalent to about 18 years of current global CO2 emissions. About 60% of these have already started pumping.
- The dozen biggest oil companies are on track to spend $103m a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas that cannot be burned if global heating is to be limited to well under 2C.
- The Middle East and Russia often attract the most attention in relation to future oil and gas production but the US, Canada and Australia are among the countries with the biggest expansion plans and the highest number of carbon bombs. The US, Canada and Australia also give some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.
At the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in November, after a quarter-century of annual negotiations that as yet have failed to deliver a fall in global emissions, countries around the world finally included the word “coal” in their concluding decision.
Even this belated mention of the dirtiest fossil fuel was fraught, leaving a “deeply sorry” Cop president, Alok Sharma, fighting back tears on the podium after India announced a last-minute softening of the need to “phase out coal” to “phase down coal”.
Nonetheless, the world agreed coal power was history – the question now was how quickly cheaper renewables could replace it, and how fair the transition would be for the small number of developing countries that still relied on it.
But there was no mention of oil and gas in the Cop26 final deal, despite these being responsible for almost 60% of fossil fuel emissions.
Furthermore, many of the rich countries, such as the US, that dominate international climate diplomacy and positioned themselves as climate leaders at the conference, are big players in new oil and gas projects. But unlike India, they avoided criticism.
That lack of scrutiny prompted the Guardian to spend the months since Cop26 piecing together the clearest picture possible of forthcoming oil and gas exploration and production.
The world’s scientists agree the planet is in deep trouble. In August, Guterres reacted strongly to a stark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science. “[This report] is a code red for humanity,” he said.
The IPCC states carbon emissions must fall by half by 2030 to preserve the chance of a liveable future, yet they show no sign of declining.
Experts have been warning since at least 2011 that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could not be burned without causing catastrophic global heating.
In 2015, a high-profile analysis found that to limit global temperature below 2C, half of known oil reserves and a third of gas had to stay in the ground, along with 80% of coal.
Today, the problem is even more acute. A better understanding of the devastating impacts of the climate crisis has led to the internationally agreed limit for global heating being lowered to 1.5C, to cut the risks of extreme heatwaves, droughts, and floods.
In May 2021, a report from the International Energy Agency, previously seen as a conservative body, concluded there could be no new oil or gas fields or coalmines if the world was to reach net zero by 2050.
More warnings soon followed. An updated scientific analysis found the proportion of fossil fuel reserves that would need to stay in the ground for 1.5C jumped to 60% for oil and gas and 90% for coal, while the UN warned that planned fossil fuel production “vastly exceeds” the limit needed for 1.5C.
In April, shocked by the latest IPCC report that said it was “now or never” to start slashing emissions, Guterres launched an outspoken attack on companies and governments whose climate actions did not match their words.
“Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic,” he said. “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”
The failure of countries to “build back greener” after the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 financial crash was not a good omen, and Guterres said: “Fossil fuel interests are now cynically using the war in Ukraine to lock in a high-carbon future.”
Assessing future oil and gas developments is challenging: the sector is complex and often secretive, public information is scarce and hard to find and assess. But a global team of Guardian environment reporters has worked with leading thinktanks, analysts and academics across the world over the past five months and now we can answer a series of questions that reveal the scale of the sector’s plans.
First, how much production is due to come from the projects that are likely to start drilling before the end of this crucial decade?
Next, where exactly are the biggest projects around the world, the so-called carbon bombs that would explode the climate?
We also followed the money: how much is going to be spent on oil and gas that cannot be burned safely, rather than invested in clean energy? And who benefits most from the fossil fuel subsidies that hide the true damage they cause?
The answers to these key questions lead to an inescapable conclusion: if the projects go ahead, they will blow the world’s rapidly shrinking cap on emissions that must be kept to enable a liveable future – known as the carbon budget.
For all the promises made by many oil companies, the data shows they remain committed to their core business despite the consequences.
The short-term expansion plans of oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil and Gazprom, are colossal. The Guardian’s investigation has found that in the next seven or so years, they are likely to start producing oil and gas from projects that would ultimately deliver 192bn barrels, the equivalent of a decade of today’s emissions from China.
This estimate was provided by analysts at Urgewald, who used data from Rystad Energy, the industry standard source but not publicly available.
Their Gogel database includes 887 companies that explore for and produce oil and gas, and covers 97% of short-term expansion plans.
The companies have made a final financial commitment to projects that will deliver 116bn barrels, more than half of the 192bn barrel total.
They have also invested heavily in the rest, including final development, engineering and operation plans. Such investment makes these projects likely to go ahead, barring drastic government action, Urgewald says.