What the latest international climate science report means for your public lands

A week ago, more than 9,000 scientists from across the globe issued a call to climate action for world leaders. Central to their message was a simple message: we’ve got about 10 years to transform the way we produce and use energy, grow and consume food, and develop lands if we want to stay below emissions levels scientists have associated with irrecoverable warming.

Why did the international science community produce this report?

This report builds on the Paris climate agreement in which signatory nations committed to a goal of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Importantly, nations also set a more aggressive ambition of limiting warming to 1.5°C which is what climate science has determined is all that the planetary climate system can tolerate without disastrous consequences.

This report was requested by the United Nations to help figure out what it will take to meet that 1.5°C ambition. Leading science has shown that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and taper down to net zero by 2050 to keep warming at or below 1.5°C.

What does the report say?

As this graphic from the report shows, we have 12 years to reduce global emissions by 45% from 2010 levels to have any reasonable chance to stay below the 1.5°C ceiling, which will require the world to be at net zero by 2050. (IPCC SR15 Figure 3a)

The world must immediately undertake extraordinary transitions in transportation, energy, land use, building infrastructure and in industrial processes. A few specific findings:

  • The world must reduce our current coal consumption by one-third, accompanied by a dramatic phase down in coal leasing
  • We have to invest in carbon capture and storage technologies for fossil fuel power plants if we want to keep any of them online.
  • We must see renewable energy deployment dramatically expanded from its current level of about 25% to more than 70% of global electricity production.
  • We must take every opportunity to address the so-called climate super pollutants like methane that cause dramatic warming increases during their relatively short-lived time in the atmosphere
  • We must rely heavily on healthy intact ecosystems to help us draw more carbon out of the air than we are putting in to avoid overshooting this threshold
  • We are essentially past the point at which we can simply reduce our emissions and hope to stay within this threshold — we have to rapidly develop and deploy technologies that do not currently exist at scale to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
  • The longer we wait to act the more extreme and costlier the potential solutions become. Engaging in meaningful efforts to reduce emissions now extends the amount of time we have to meet our climate goals and reduces our financial burden compared to delayed action.

All this and more must be accomplished in just over a decade lest our emissions momentum pushes us in the wrong direction.

What the report means for our public lands

While not discussed directly, our public lands represent one of our nation’s best kept secrets in the war on climate change.

Lifecycle emissions associated with oil, gas and coal produced on public lands compared with the world’s top emitting countries.

Our public lands are the source of a huge amount of our fossil energy production and, as a result, our climate emissions. Many Americans are unfamiliar with the amount of coal, oil and natural gas resources that come from public lands every year. Over the last decade, fossil fuels produced on federally managed lands and waters accounted for approximately 40% of our nation’s coal, 26% of our oil and 23% of our natural gas. And where there is production of fossil fuel resources, there are emissions that follow, whether it be from where the resources are extracted or where they are ultimately burned. Our research shows that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil, gas, and coal from public lands are equivalent to about one-fifth of total U.S. emissions. This is significant — if public lands were a country, it would rank 5th in the world in total emissions behind China, India, the United States and Russia.

The federal government does not measure or track these emissions — let alone have a plan to reduce them. This means the American people are left in the dark and lack the information they need to effectively participate in decisions about managing our shared resources. And this administration’s policies are making the public lands problem worse. The Interior Department appears to be working intently to avoid reporting useful information about production and emissions in the future.

What’s more, protected public lands contain some of the most important unfragmented habitat needed to assure ecosystems and wildlife can adjust to the climate changes already dialed in.

What TWS is doing

In the absence of a public database to access current production and projected emissions, The Wilderness Society decided to create and track the available data in our Federal Lands Emissions Accountability Tool (FLEAT). Without the careful measurement of emissions that originate from fossil fuel development on public lands, it is impossible to understand — let alone address — the potential financial and climate risks they may present. As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. That’s why shareholders are demanding publicly traded companies disclose the financial risks presented by climate change, and we believe so should the government provide timely and accurate accounting of the climate risks of developing public coal, oil and gas resources to the American taxpayer.

Simply disclosing emissions is not enough — the federal government must actively manage our energy assets with climate in mind. So we are fighting recent changes to regulations that will allow significant amounts of methane — a potent climate super pollutant, 86 times more damaging than carbon dioxide — to be dumped into the atmosphere from oil and gas projects on public lands. In fact, the amount of natural gas wasted on public lands annually has the same climate impact as driving 3.3 million cars. We are also calling for a phase down of coal, oil and gas leasing on public lands as demanded by climate science. The math on federal lands is simple — leasing and production must be phased down. And we are developing policies that can facilitate a managed decline of fossil energy production to levels called for by climate science. But many rural communities may be put at risk by declining production. This transition must be accompanied by policies that help diversify rural economies to keep them healthy and resilient even as fossil energy production declines.

We cannot allow climate damaging fossil fuels to continue to be sold at below-market rates. Over the past century, the fiscal system for coal, oil and gas has been riddled with giveaways to the industry. In the past year, even more have been created. We are calling for these subsidies to stop because they are bad for taxpayers and bad for the planet.

With so much wind, solar and geothermal potential on public lands, yet less than 1% of generation capacity deployed there, we have to do more to jumpstart renewables deployment. That is why we are helping drive rapid deployment of renewable energy on public lands by finding areas prescreened for conflicts with sensitive species, cultural resources and other concerns.

We are creating new opportunities for climate engagement in coal, oil and gas leasing decisions on public lands. This starts by connecting people with the source of their fuel. Coal mined from public lands alone supplies power generators in more than 30 states as far flung as Maryland, Texas, and Illinois. In the coming months, we will have new tools available to support advocacy on key federal land use decisions with significant climate implications.

Finally, we are convening and participating in discussions to share these important issues, internationally and here at home. In fact, today we are helping to convene the first Faith, Science & Climate Conference to empower faith- and science-oriented individuals and communities to learn how to collaborate on climate change and environmental justice issues.