World’s Top Energy Agency Calls for an End to New Fossil Fuel Development Worldwide

Interview with David Turnbull, strategic communications director with Oil Change International, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In mid-May, the International Energy Agency released a report which for the first time called for an end to new fossil fuel development worldwide. The IEA’s “Net Zero by 2050” report issued last week said that investors should not fund new oil, gas and coal supply projects beyond this year if the world wants to reach net zero emissions by mid-century, and meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and staying within a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature.

That’s the limit beyond which climate catastrophe would likely ensue, with impacts from sea level rise, massive storms and droughts – beyond what the inhabitants of Earth can comfortably survive.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with David Turnbull, strategic communications director with Oil Change International. Here, he talks about what a breakthrough this report is for an agency that formerly gave cover to the fossil fuel industry to continue expanding, and what it’s likely going to mean for future fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

DAVID TURNBULL: The International Energy Agency is an agency that was actually set up in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis. And it was set up by a number of oil-consuming countries to help them manage through the oil crisis of the 1970s. And since then, it has evolved into a modeling and sort of analysis agency that has really billed itself as the pre-eminent energy authority in the world in terms of modeling future energy scenarios and looking at world energy consumption and outlooks. Every year, it puts out a World Energy Outlook, which is a major report that looks ahead at the future of energy and a lot of governments, decision-makers, businesses and investors use that report as a basis for their decisions on an energy future. A lot of them look to the World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency as a guide, or a point of information on what our future looks like. And so, it’s a really critical agency. It’s not officially tied to the U.N., but it is accountable to the governments that are a part of it. And there’s a number of them. Some of the bigger countries in the world are a part of it and they run these analyses.

MELINDA TUHUS: So it’s not exactly a radical organization?

DAVID TURNBULL: Not in the slightest. It has consistently been seen as rather conservative with respect to analyzing or projecting renewable energy growth. It’s conservative in the way it has essentially supported the investment in fossil fuels that suggesting that that was a necessary part of our energy outlook.

MELINDA TUHUS: So that makes this report even more interesting because the key finding is that we can’t have any more fossil fuel infrastructure beyond what we already have to have any hope staying within a 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, correct?

DAVID TURNBULL: Yeah, more or less. This report that was just out recently is the first time that the IEA has looked at modeling a scenario that really aligns with the aggressive goals enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement from 2015. This is the first time that they’ve really looked at what our energy future would look like in a scenario where we try to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.

And their conclusion is one that we actually at Oil Change reached about five years ago, which is that we cannot be investing in new oil and gas development. And we need to be leaving coal behind as quickly as possible. They are saying that the oil and gas in currently producing fields is more than enough to meet our energy needs. As we quickly transition away from those fossil fuels, we cannot afford as a global community to be investing in new fossil fuels.

MELINDA TUHUS: David Turnbull, will this report impact financing for fossil fuel projects, such as Line Three, the tar sands pipeline that’s just like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that President Biden stopped on his first day in office?

DAVID TURNBULL: Yes. Absolutely. Any infrastructure that’s being built to incentivize new oil and gas development would not be in line with what the International Energy Agency has suggested with this recent report. You know, the rationale for stopping the Keystone XL pipeline was that it didn’t fit in a climate future that President Biden envisions. On Line Three, the reasons are exactly the same and bolstered by this IEA report.

MELINDA TUHUS: The press release from Oil Change International also said the report had some flaws. Can you talk about those?

DAVID TURNBULL: You know, as with any of these sorts of reports, there were some shortcomings. So, as ever, the IEA seems to continue to underestimate the growth of renewable energy, like wind and solar. They see a leveling off of that growth after few years after 2040. And you know, a lot of analysis shows that there’s no reason to believe that growth should level off at that point. And we should see it continue to grow quite dramatically. And so that’s one area where we’re concerned and what that then results in is an overlooked reliance on things like carbon capture and sequestration to allow fossil fuel energy production to continue.

And we also need to see them really center this scenario, this new analysis in their flagship publication, the World Energy Outlook, which comes out in the fall every year. That World Energy Outlook is the publication that a lot of investors and governments use to guide their decision-making. And we need to see this net zero report, this report that shows that new fossil fuel investment is inappropriate at the center of the World Energy Outlook.

For more information, visit Oil Change International at priceofoil.org.

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