Leaving fuel underground

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima, Shadow.


We have the technology and money needed to replace fossil fuels

In some respects, preventing climate breakdown is extremely complicated. But in others, it's very simple: we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. All the hoopla and grandiose, all the extravagant promises and detailed mechanisms discussed in Glasgow this week will amount to nothing if this simple and obvious thing does not happen.

A recent study, published in the scientific journal Nature, suggests that in order to have a 50% chance of avoiding an average global warming below 1,5ºC, we would need to shut down 89% of known coal mines, 58% of oil reserves and 59 % of fossil methane reserves (“natural gas”). If we are interested in a better situation than this, we will practically have to abandon them altogether.

However, most governments with major reserves of fossil fuels are determined to make the wrong choice. As the latest report by the UN and academic researchers on the production gap (the difference between planned production by governments and levels consistent with a limitation of global warming) demonstrates, in the next two decades, without a quick and drastic change in policies , coal extraction will tend to decline a little, but oil and gas production will continue to grow. By 2030, governments plan to extract 110% more fossil fuels than their commitment to the Paris agreement would allow (“limit average temperature rise to 1,5°C above pre-industrial levels”).

Even the nations that claim to be leading the transition intend to keep extracting. In the US, Joe Biden promised to stop all new tenders for oil and gas extraction in public territory and in the ocean. His government was sued by 14 Republican states. Despite the arguments of climate activists, saying that Biden has many other tools to avoid issuing such bids, he gave in immediately and his government has already started auctions for exploration rights in the Alaskan sea and in the Gulf of Mexico. This is just the kind of weakness that the Republicans were interested in exploiting.

Germany has promised to phase out coal production by 2038 (too late, by the way). Despite this, the country continues to develop new coal deposits. An example of this is the village of Lützerath, in North Rhine-Westphalia, located on a thick layer of the dirtiest type of coal – lignite –, which is currently being destroyed. If Germany follows the rules it has established, the mine will have to be abandoned before reaching its full production capacity. In the end, either the houses and forests are being destroyed for no reason, or the German government does not intend to honor its commitment.

In the UK, the government still insists on what it calls “maximizing the economic recovery” of oil and gas. In the last year, it offered 113 new exploration permits in maritime reserves. The country intends to at least double the amount of fossil fuels available for exploitation.

All the speeches, promises and gestures made in Glasgow this week are grains of sand in the face of the hard facts concerning coal mines, oil and gas wells. What really counts is the mining and drilling: the rest is mere distraction.

But distraction is a big deal. Oil companies have spent millions of dollars on advertisements, memes and movies to convince us that they have gone “green”. However, the latest Energy Agency report on this issue reveals that in 2020, “clean energy investments by the oil and gas industry constituted only about 1% of total capital expenditure”.

Since the Paris accord in 2015, the world's 60 largest banks have poured $3,8 trillion into oil companies. In rich countries, China and India are blamed for climate breakdown as these countries continue to build new coal mines. But about 40% of the expected total carbon emissions from the Asian mines that were part of the researchers' sample can be attributed to banks and investors in Europe and the United States. Even if blame were appropriately apportioned by nationality – an absurd notion in a world where money moves freely and power is exercised across borders – we could not abstain from these decisions.

There is practically no fossil fuel exploration project on planet Earth that has not received public money. In 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund, governments spent around 450 billion on direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. The IMF estimates the other costs such an industry imposes on us – pollution, destruction and climate chaos – at $5.5 trillion. But I don't see the point in such numbers: dollars cannot capture the loss of human life and the destruction of ecosystems, let alone the prospect of systemic environmental collapse. One in five deaths, according to a recent estimate, is already due to fossil fuel pollution.

Public finance companies are still pouring money into coal, oil and gas production: over the last three years, G20 governments and multinational development banks spent two and a half times more money on international finance for fossil fuels than on renewable fuels. . By one estimate, 93% of the world's coal mines are protected by market forces, special government contracts and uncompetitive tariffs. The UK cut income tax on oil extraction companies to zero. As a result, soon the costs of oil fields to public coffers will be greater than their income. What's the point of it?

For just $161 billion – a fraction of the money governments spend funding fossil fuels – they could buy and shut down every coal mine on the planet. If they did, as part of a just transition, they would create more jobs than they destroy. Research by Oil Change International, for example, suggests that the UK could generate three jobs in the clean energy sector for every one lost in the oil and gas industry.

Everything pertaining to the relationship between nation-states and the fossil fuel industry is perverse, stupid, and self-defeating. For the sake of the profits and dividends of this filthy industry – extraordinarily concentrated in a minuscule portion of the world's population – governments make us commit to catastrophe.

Around the world, people are mobilizing to change this situation, and their voices need to be heard in Glasgow. The campaign to create a non-proliferation agreement on fossil fuels gathered signatures from thousands of scientists and more than 100 Nobel Prize winners. The Europe Beyond Coal alliance is bringing together movements across the continent to stop new mines opening and close existing ones. The visionary governments of Denmark and Costa Rica founded the Beyond Oil and Gas alliance. We must press our governments to join it.

And yes, it's that simple. We have the technology needed to replace fossil fuels. There is enough money, which continues to be wasted on the destruction of life on Earth. The transition could happen in months, if governments really put their minds to it. The only obstacle in the way is the legacy power of industries and the people who profit from them. That's what needs to be overthrown. All the nods, all the complexity and all the grandiloquent distraction that we saw in Glasgow were designed, above all, with one purpose: not to accelerate this transition, but to prevent it.

*George Monbiot is a journalist and environmental activist. Author, among other books, of Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (Verse).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.




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