‘Carbon bomb’? That doesn’t sound good… The term carbon bomb has been in use for years, describing large sources of carbon, most commonly fossil fuel projects. Now, new research led by the University of Leeds, has defined the term as applying to projects that have the potential to emit at least 1 billion tonnes (1Gt) of carbon over their lifetime. To give you an idea of exactly how scary that is – 1 billion tonnes is about 3 times the total annual emissions of the UK. Global carbon emissions are currently around 35 billion tonnes a year.
What’s even more worrying is that the study found that there are 425 carbon bombs planned; 230 coal mines and 195 oil and gas projects. Of these 256 are already active. The estimated total emissions of these projects is 1182 Gt, of which 419 Gt comes from new projects. That’s equivalent to nearly 34 years of global emissions.
If these projects are allowed to go ahead, they would push the planet way beyond the 1.5°c of warming which scientists say is the safe limit we should be aiming for, and which 192 countries have pledged to try and achieve in the Paris Agreement. In fact the carbon bombs in this study exceed the 1.5°c budget by a factor of two.
The countries with the most carbon bombs are China (with 141), followed by Russia (41) and the US (28). Overall, two thirds of the projects are in China, Russia, the Middle East and North Africa. China is of particular concern as its coal mining industry makes up the largest number of carbon bombs.
Unfortunately these regions have traditionally avoided efforts to stop fossil fuels. Most action to tackle carbon bombs at a political level has so far taken place in countries with few active fossil fuel projects. For example, Spain and New Zealand have stopped giving out oil and gas licences, Greenland has banned oil and gas exploration entirely, and a number of European countries have banned fracking. This action is arguably possible because of the privileged position of these economies; another possible explanation is that actions have been more forthcoming in countries where climate activism is more prevalent (likely due to the fact that protest laws are much less strict, yet again a position of privilege).
However, much more widespread global action is required to tackle the problem. The authors of the study state categorically that “Defusing carbon bombs should be a priority for climate change mitigation policy”. The study recommends that governments put in place policies to avoid new carbon bombs being activated, and put existing ones into ‘harvest mode’ (that is, allowing a natural decline in production). A key element of this would be stopping fossil fuel subsidies, something which the G20 committed to do in 2009 but which has failed to materialise.
“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.”UN secretary general, António Guterres
Climate activists aren’t just going to sit back and let these bombs go off – there are already campaigns all around the world targeting climate-destroying fossil fuel projects. Here are some you can get involved with…
This campaign to defuse carbon bombs is supported by an alliance of NGO’s including 350.org, OilWatch Africa, Climate Action Fund, and the Centre for International Environmental Law. They aim to bring together and support groups targeting specific projects around the world, whether by legal action, civil disobedience, or through financial activism. Find out more on their website.
Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (@fossilfueltreaty)
Since 2015, Pacific Island nations (some of the worst affected by climate change), have been campaigning for a ban on the ‘development and expansion of fossil fuel extracting industries’. This cry has since been taken up by a wider group of leaders, academics, and activists and in 2019 the FFNPT Initiative was launched. It is now supported by 12 cities, 750 organisations, over 2500 scientists and academics, and countless individuals. You can find out more and show your support on their website.
Following their mini-win in pausing the Cambo oil field project, Stop Cambo are now campaigning against the North Sea Jackdaw gas field (run by Shell). Jackdaw was originally rejected because of the ‘significant effect’ it would have on the climate due to its reserves having an unusually high CO2 content. However, the UK government has recently reversed this decision and Shell is now set to go ahead with the project. Go to the Stop Cambo website to find out how you can get involved.
#StopEACOP (@stopeacop and @letsstopeacopuk)
The East African Crude Oil Pipeline, run by French company Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, will run through the heart of Africa. It will displace thousands of local people, destroy vital ecosystems, and extract enough oil to produce 34 million tonnes of carbon every year. The StopEACOP campaign is an alliance of organisations and campaigners dedicated to stopping the project, by (amongst other things) putting pressure on banks and insurers to avoid the project. You can find out how to support the campaign on their website.
Read all about the fight to stop oil drilling in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in our ‘Stories from the Frontline’ series. Recently there have been positive signs that the campaign for a #FossilFreeVirunga is working, with the DRC government suspending oil exploration until the impacts have been ‘thoroughly assessed’. However, the campaign continues, pushing for a full ban.
The Okavango Delta, another World Heritage site renowned for its rich biodiversity, is being exploited for oil and gas extraction by Canadian company ReconAfrica. You can find out more about the campaign against the project in Episode 1 of our Frontline series.
Ende Gelände (@ende__gelaende)
There are only two carbon bombs in Germany, both coal mines. As part of their anti-capitalist and climate justice campaigning, Ende Gelände are actively fighting for these mines to be shut down. You can find out more on their website (in English and German!).
Divestment (@350org, @mmmoney_matter, @carbontracker, and @platform1983)
Another way to tackle carbon bombs is by turning off the money tap. Many of the carbon bombs identified in this study are being developed by private fossil fuel companies like Shell, Total, BP, ExxonMovil, Chevron. We’ve written before about the power of divestment, and you can find out more about how defunding the industry can help tackle climate change by visiting these sites: Divest UK, Carbon Tracker, Make My Money Matter, 350.org.
- Read the full study on the Science Direct website.
- Read more about oil and gas projects in The Guardian and follow their coverage of carbon bombs on their website.
- Sign the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and encourage your friends and family as well as businesses and organisations to sign too.
- Join or support campaigns to stop carbon bombs – we’ve highlighted some of the ways you can get involved above but there are lots of activist groups fighting to defuse carbon bombs all around the world.