This article was published by the International Energy Agency on May 13, 2023.
By Dr. Fatih Birol
The COP28 Climate Change Conference in Dubai this year is a unique opportunity for the oil and gas industry to show it’s serious about tackling climate change.
At a time when the impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt worldwide, oil and gas producers need to secure a new social license to operate. The world needs to see meaningful changes in the operations of both international and national oil companies, with clear and responsible strategies for bringing down their emissions rapidly.
The oil and gas companies that have so far announced plans to reduce emissions from their operations account for less than half of global production. And many of the pledges that have been made are vague or aren’t backed up by clear strategies for achieving them, especially for the crucial period between now and 2030. More ambitious targets, concrete plans and robust accountability are needed to achieve deep reductions across oil and gas activities and beyond.
Talk of reducing emissions is easy, but the good news is that so too are the actions oil and gas producers can take.
Emissions from oil and gas operations alone account for a considerable chunk of the global total. Taking oil and gas out of the ground, processing it and delivering it to consumers accounts for almost 15 per cent of global energy-related emissions – that’s more than all the emissions produced by the United States or twice the emissions of the entire European Union. Our latest report, Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations in Net Zero Transitions, shows how the oil and gas industry can reduce these emissions by 60 per cent between now and 2030. This would require upfront spending of around USD 600 billion – much less than the trillions of dollars the industry accrued last year off the back of record high energy prices.
Amid the global energy crisis, many consumers and businesses were hit hard by soaring energy prices in 2022. But for the oil and gas industry, it was a year of record profits. It’s now time to put that to use for wider benefit. The industry can and should reinvest some of those profits to help the world reach net zero emissions and keep the goal of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 °C within sight. The oil and gas industry today has the technologies, resources and expertise to cut emissions from its operations dramatically – and at relatively little cost.
Actions to cut emissions quickly are available and affordable
We have identified several key levers that oil and gas producers can use to ensure they cut the emissions of their operations by 60 per cent by the end of this decade.
The first is to tackle methane emissions and put an end to all non-emergency flaring, the practice of burning off produced gas, which releases vast quantities of emissions into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and – according to our Global Methane Tracker – emissions remained stubbornly high in 2022. Yet a wide variety of well-known technologies and measures could cut these emissions by three-quarters in a very short space of time. And it’s cost effective: the large majority of the spending required can simply be paid for by selling the gas that is captured.
Producers should also electrify their upstream operations. Producers often rely on high-polluting diesel or natural gas generators to power their facilities. Connecting to electricity grids or using renewable energy such as solar PV and wind paired with backup storage could meet this need today as the longer-term transition away from fossil fuels unfolds.
Another key area for action is in scaling up low-emissions hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization and storage. The industry is already a leader in developing these technologies and should use them much more in their own operations. This would also help bring down costs and provide potential benefits to their use in other industries such as steel, cement and fertilizer.
It’s important to note that cutting emissions from oil and gas operations isn’t an excuse not to also address the huge amount of emissions caused by using the fuels themselves in transport, heating, electricity generation and other activities. The industry needs to act and invest responsibly, working with governments and other sectors to hasten the transition to clean energy rather than impeding it.
But oil and gas aren’t going to disappear from our economies overnight – even in ambitious pathways such as the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. This means that the emissions from oil and gas operations need to be reduced rapidly at the same time as demand for the fuels is being driven down by policies to accelerate the transition.
The whole industry needs to up its game
There is currently a huge variation among different oil and gas producers in terms of how much their operations emit: the worst performers generate four times as much emissions as the best. By 2030, the whole global industry needs to be performing at a similar level to today’s best performers.
The impact on consumers would be limited: reducing these emissions would add an average of less than USD 2 to the cost of a barrel of oil in the facilities that implement the measures. Producers also need to up their game in terms of monitoring, reporting and verifying emissions. The industry should be striving to make sure all its emissions are measured robustly as soon as possible to build public confidence in the actions it is taking.
Much of the oil and gas industry has allowed these emissions to go unaddressed for too long. The industry now needs to show the world that it can make a positive contribution to tackling climate change. Hosted by a major oil and gas producer, COP28 in the United Arab Emirates is a unique opportunity to demonstrate a real commitment to cutting emissions. To support this, the IEA will publish a special report ahead of COP28 that will help map out a path for oil and gas producers in the transition to net zero emissions.
The simple facts are already clear: the oil and gas industry has the technologies, the money and the know-how to cut its emissions by 60 per cent by 2030. And it has the responsibility to do so. This is a moment of truth: if the oil and gas industry wants to be taken seriously in climate discussions, it has to clean up its act.