One of Big Oil's biggest advocates says we need to stop investing in fossil fuels

Petrochemical plant at twilight at Tsing Yi, Hong Kong
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At this point, we've seen countless reports and studies telling us that we need to ditch fossil fuels ASAP to have any hope of staving off the worst effects of climate change. Even so, the fossil fuel industry never seems to be in a rush to stop exploiting the planet's natural resources for profit. That's what makes the latest report from Big Oil ally the International Energy Agency (IEA) so shocking. On Tuesday, the organization issued a report that called for sweeping and dramatic changes to the energy sector, including stopping the global sales of gas-powered cars by 2035 and ending all investments in new fossil fuel projects by next year.

Working with the same goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement, which seeks to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the IEA created a roadmap on how to transition to a carbon-free energy system while "ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth." While that's somewhat code for "a pathway to profitability for Big Oil" — seeing as that is in large part who the IEA serves — it also appears to be pretty damn serious.

Heeding the IEA's call for an almost immediate halt to new coal and oil plants would significantly impact the short-term plans of companies like ExxonMobil, which was reportedly planning to increase its drilling and extraction operations despite the obvious need for a draw down. Shell, on the other hand, has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 with plans to decrease production from here on out — but that doesn't entirely preclude new investments, just a slow decline in them.

And the IEA report says these slow-rolling tactics will not suffice. Instead, Big Oil has to stop planning new fossil fuel extraction projects, and banks have to stop funding them. Financial institutions have poured more than $3.8 trillion into fossil fuel projects since the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect, according to The Guardian. That's going to have come to an end — and fast.

The IEA has some ideas on where the cash can go instead. The organization's roadmap calls for massive investments in both solar and wind power, indicating that we need to quadruple our current level of energy production from these renewable sources by 2030 in order to reach net-zero emissions. Doing so, the report notes, will require the equivalent of "installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day" in order to meet this goal. That, in turn, will help hit another checkpoint: getting the global electricity sector to net-zero emissions by 2040.

The report also sets a hard deadline for ending the sales of new combustion engine vehicles: By 2035, the IEA says, all new cars sold should be electric. That's on track with some existing goals, including one set by California last year that will ban gas-powered vehicle sales starting in 2035. Several countries, including Japan and the United Kingdom, have similarly planned to phase out combustion cars by that year.

The IEA's ideas aren't groundbreaking — but the fact that they're basically in line with what many scientists and environmental advocates are also calling for is a big deal. The IEA was formed in the 1970s following the global oil crisis and was tasked by industrial countries with addressing oil production shortages and disruptions. Historically, the organization has been much more invested in protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry than the health of the planet. Over the years, they've been accused of downplaying the climate crisis, intentionally underestimating renewable energy sources, and distorting data to serve the interests of oil-rich countries.

The new net-zero roadmap from the IEA represents a major change in its approach — which just might also represent a larger turning of the tide. Thirty countries, including major carbon emitters like the U.S., are members of the organization and rely on the IEA as an energy policy advisor. Of course, the existence of the IEA's new report doesn't mean every country will adopt its roadmap — in fact, Asian energy officials have already rejected it, according to Reuters. But the IEA has the ear of the fossil fuel sector and of policymakers around the world, including in the U.S., India, and China. The organization's recommendations have been used in the past to justify everything from oil drilling in Alaska to expanding oil pipelines. Now that the IEA is calling for a draw down in these types of projects, it will be interesting to see if the same companies that happily cite the organization for expanding fossil fuel reliance will continue to follow its recommendations or will suddenly shun them.