Energy and ecological transition



Emphasis on the ecological agenda should be the main change in US foreign policy under Joe Biden

“Traditional utopias – classic and modern – had one thing in common: they proposed a certain vision of the end of history, a society that would be ideal. The ecological utopia says that the important thing is that history continues, is to create conditions of possibility for the following generations to continue to have their utopias” (Viriato Soromenho Marques).

The XNUMXst century debate on the low-carbon “energy transition” is based on three hypotheses formulated in the last century: (a) on the possibility of depleting world oil reserves within a few decades; (b) on the great responsibility of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) for climate change and the ecological deterioration of the XNUMXth century; and finally, (c) on the possibility of a “sustainable” or “alternative” development, with renewable and clean energy, within the capitalist production regime itself, built by the collective will of individuals and nations.

The first time that the end of the “age of oil” was predicted was in 1874, when the Pennsylvania government warned North Americans that they would only have oil to guarantee kerosene lighting in their large cities for another four years. Needless to say, this prediction has been trumped by facts, and today US oil reserves are estimated at 68,9 billion barrels, and its daily production is about 17 million barrels.

Even so, in the early 70s, the Club of Rome again predicted the final depletion of world oil reserves within a maximum period of 20 to 30 years, in its famous report “The limits of growth" [1], transformed into a kind of modern Malthusian bible that was systematically denied by the facts. Even so, today, when one looks back with the perspective of the past time, one better understands the pessimism of the famous report of the Club of Rome in 1972, at the beginning of the so-called “crisis of American hegemony”, marked by the end of the “dollar standard”. ”, by the explosion in the price of oil, by the rise in interest rates and by the final crisis of post-World War II “Keynesian developmentalism”.

Later, in 1996, geologists Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere used the finite resource extrapolation technique – the Huppert Curve – to calculate that the volume of world reserves was 850 billion barrels and that 50% of oil available in the world would have already been extracted around the same decade of 70; therefore, there would only be another 150 billion barrels left to be discovered across the planet. Later this projection was corrected, and the deadline was moved to 2050/2060, but to this day all these apocalyptic predictions have been systematically denied and trumped by facts.

More than that, since the 70s, world oil reserves have not stopped growing, and today they are estimated at 1,7 trillion barrels, despite world consumption fluctuating between 90 and 100 billion b/d in the beginning of the third decade of the 50st century. Furthermore, today, technological advances in “alternative energies” have been offset by simultaneous technological advances in the oil and gas industry. And oil prices, contrary to what the Club of Rome predicted, have not grown systematically, having fluctuated over the last XNUMX years.

In parallel and entirely independently, the “United Nations Conference on the Environment” was held in the same year, 1972, in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, bringing together 113 countries and more than 400 governmental and non-governmental organizations to discuss, together, the new global challenge of ecological destruction and environmental change. At that meeting, the topics of water, global desertification and the use of pesticides in agriculture were discussed, and the challenge posed by climate change was discussed for the first time. There was no consensus or final agreement, due to opposition, especially at that time, from the richest and most developed countries.

However, the “Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Environment”, adopted on June 6, 1972, ended up becoming the original seed from which the idea, the project and the utopia of a new type of development that did not followed the same predatory model as the original industrializations. The idea of ​​“sustainable development” only acquired a more complete form in the 80s, through the Brundtland Report (named after the first minister of Norway who headed the United Nations commission created in 1983, and who was responsible for drafting the final document). and the Montreal Protocol, prepared by the World Commission on the Environment of the UN and published in 1987, with the signature of 150 countries.

Five years later, these same ideas were taken up and deepened by a new United Nations Conference, ECO 92, held in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the problems of biodiversity and climate change associated with the alternative development project were discussed. consecrated by Agenda 21, which was approved by 179 countries. On the same occasion, the “Earth Charter” was launched, approved by a parallel forum of non-governmental organizations. And this is how the new utopia of “sustainable development” was consecrated soon after the end of the Cold War, when, after the Gulf War, the liberal-cosmopolitan utopias of globalization and humanitarianism were consolidated victoriously.

After that, several annual meetings were held on the ecological issue and climate change, with emphasis on those held in Kyoto, in 1997; in Johannesburg, in 2002; and in Rio de Janeiro, in 2002 and 2012, culminating in the Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries in 2015. This agreement proposes objectives and defines more precise targets for reducing greenhouse gases, as a way to contain or slow down the global warming process. It was in this last period, and in particular after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, in 1997, that the “sustainable development” agenda intersected and definitively combined with the “energy transition” agenda, since the responsibility of fuels was proven. fossil fuels for more than 50% of gas emissions and for their “cascading effect” on other natural resources.

This is how the “sustainable development” project became definitively associated with the low-carbon “energy transition” proposal and the ethical project of building a new economy [2]. But despite the apparent international consensus, all the data indicate that humanity is far from containing global warming, and that, on the contrary, the situation has worsened in the last three years, reaching a record of 36,8 billion tons of carbon dioxide. in 2019. At this point in our reasoning, a good question arises: how can we explain this contradiction between the apparent international “ecological consensus” and the growing lack of control over the planet’s ecological and climate situation?

First of all, we must bear in mind that it is not an easy task to dismantle a global infrastructure around the world, destined to produce and distribute the fuel that has powered the economic system and the lives of the citizens of planet Earth for over a hundred years. . Furthermore, it should be clear that even today the “climate challenge” and the “energy transition” proposal continue to be eminently political projects, whose success depends almost entirely on the conscience of individuals and the political will of 200 national States, which are independent and are organized within a fully hierarchical interstate system, from the point of view of their power and wealth [3].

Within this system, it must be taken into account that more than 50% of the planet's greenhouse gases are emitted by no more than five or six countries, and by no more than 20 large multinational companies. Add to that the fact that these five or six are among the rich and powerful on the planet – among them China, USA, India, Russia, Japan and Germany; and that all the 20 largest companies responsible for something around 33% of the world's carbon gas emissions are large private or public oil companies.

It is therefore understood, on the other hand, that the countries in the international system that have made the most progress in controlling gas emissions and advancing their “ecological transition” are precisely Sweden, Switzerland and Norway, that is, three small countries whose combined populations are smaller than that of the state of São Paulo. With this, one can better understand why those primarily responsible for the world's ecological and climate problems are also their main beneficiaries, and some of them are those who most resist the establishment of climate goals, as is the case of the United States, in particular during the government of Donald Trump, who has just abandoned the Paris Agreement after spending four years torpedoing all the decisions of previous governments favorable to the energy transition agenda. But even within the European Union, which appears at the head of the “changers”, it is difficult to achieve a consensus between its richest countries and its huge fringe, which is poorer and does not have the necessary resources to replace its productive structure and energy infrastructure.

Even so, in the opposite direction, the change in the Chinese position in recent years should be highlighted, and in particular its accelerated process of “electrification” of its automobile fleet. And more recently, the defeat of Donald Trump and the election of a new American president, Joe Biden, who proposes to reduce the American emission of carbon gas, having promised to allocate in the next four years, US$ 2 trillion for the creation of new jobs and clean industries, and to create new low-carbon infrastructure. And it is not impossible that the “ecological issue” could become a point of negotiation and diplomatic convergence of the new government with China.

Despite this, one cannot forget that the new president's term is only four years, and that his government and its ecological agenda are bound to encounter resistance and fierce opposition from the US Senate. Even so, this should be the main change in American foreign policy in 2021, and should be added to the forthcoming announcement by the world's main development banks that they will no longer finance projects involving the use of coal. A good time to remember with optimism that utopias will always remain utopias, while the collective political will advances, even if it is slow, tortuous and imperfect.

* Jose Luis Fiori He is a full professor at the Graduate Programs in International Political Economy and Graduate Programs in Bioethics and Applied Ethics at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of the american power (Voices).



[1] The Club of Rome, created in 1968 by the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei and the Scottish scientist Alexander King, was a group of “distinguished” people who met periodically – like the Davos Economic Forum – to discuss the agenda of the great future problems of the humanity, with emphasis on the themes of environment, climate and natural limits of economic growth. He became famous precisely with the publication of his report, The Limits to Growth, designed by a team of MIT technicians who were hired by the Club of Rome and led by Dana Meadows. This report dealt with various topics such as the environment, energy, pollution, growth, sanitation, etc. and sold more than 30 million copies in 30 different languages, popularizing the old Malthusian theses of natural and population limits to economic growth.

[2] The “ethical urgency” of the theme of ecological transition explains the fact that it was the subject of a Papal Encyclical dedicated exclusively to “care for our common home”: “It has become urgent and imperative to develop policies capable of making that, in the coming years, the emission of carbonic anhydride and other highly polluting gases is drastically reduced, for example, replacing fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy” (Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si', On Care for our Common Home, P. 24).

[3] "The only force that appears to be able to alter this picture in the foreseeable future is a strong policy that internalizes the substantial external environmental and social costs of fossil fuels, especially climate change” (Connor, AP; Cleveland, CJ “US Energy Transitions 1780-2010, energies, 2014, p. 7981. Available>.



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