What mix of politics, psychology, economics and technology is required to persuade the world to abandon fossil fuels? Carbon footprinting expert and friend of Ecology Mike Berners-Lee and author Duncan Clark explore the issues in new book The Burning Question. Here, Duncan explains why we continue to extract and burn more fossil fuels than ever…
We have far more oil, coal and gas than we can safely burn. For all the millions of words written about climate change, the challenge really comes down to this: fuel is enormously useful, massively valuable and hugely important geopolitically, but tackling global warming means leaving most of it in the ground – by choice. The climate doesn’t know or care how much renewable or nuclear energy we’ve got, how efficient our cars and homes are, how many people there are, or even how we run the economy. It only cares how much globe-warming pollution we emit – and that may be curiously immune to the measures we usually assume will help.
There are three facts that tell you all you really need to know about climate science and politics. One: for all the uncertainty about the detail, every science academy in the world accepts the mainstream view of man-made global warming. Two: virtually every government, recognising the profound danger of tampering with the climate that allowed human society to thrive, has agreed the world must limit the global temperature increase to 2°C – a level which isn’t by any means ‘safe’ but may be enough to avoid the worst impacts. Three: the amount of warming we will experience goes up roughly in proportion to the total amount of carbon that global society emits – cumulatively.
Here is the rub. Even if we gave up on all the obscure and unconventional fossil fuel resources that companies are spending billions trying to access – and just burned the ‘proven’ oil, coal and gas reserves – it is overwhelmingly likely that we would shoot well past 2°C and towards 3°C or even 4°C of warming. It is impossible to say what changes another three or four degrees would bring, but after less than 1°C of temperature increase so far, we are already seeing some profound changes, including a collapse in Arctic sea ice coverage more severe than even the most pessimistic predictions from just a few years ago.
Given what is at stake, it is no wonder that governments agree global warming must be stopped. But that is where the common sense ends and the cognitive dissonance begins. Because to have a decent chance of not exceeding the already risky global target, we need to start phasing out fossil fuels now at a fast enough rate to bring down emissions globally by a few percent a year, and continue doing so for decades to come. Now compare that with what is actually happening. The growth rate in total carbon emissions in the past decade, at around 2% a year, was the same as that of the 1850s. For all the mounting scientific concern, the political rhetoric and the clean technology, nothing has made a jot of difference to the long-term trend at the global level.
Though our governments now subsidise clean-power sources and efficient cars and buildings – and encourage us all to use less energy – they are continuing to undermine all that by ripping as much oil, coal and gas out of the ground as possible. And if their own green policies mean there isn’t a market for these fuels at home, then no matter: they can just be exported instead.
It is not just governments that are in near-universal denial about what needs to happen to the fossil fuel sector. Blithely ignoring the fact that there is already far more accessible fuel than can be safely burned, pension fund managers and other investors are allowing listed fossil fuel companies to spend the best part of $1tn a year (comparable to the US defence budget, or more than $100 for every person on the planet) to find and develop yet more reserves. If and when we emerge from this insanity, the carbon bubble will burst and those investments will turn out to have been as toxic as sub-prime mortgages. But for now, the fuel is still flowing freely.
Of course, oil, coal and gas use will level off eventually no matter what we do. Fossil fuels are a finite resource and each year they get more expensive relative to renewables and nuclear. But given the continued acceleration not just in fossil fuel extraction but in the production of cars, boilers, furnaces and power plants that need oil, coal and gas to function, there is zero prospect of that happening of its own accord any time soon. Forget peak oil caused by dwindling supplies. At least until we’ve cracked cheap carbon capture, we need to bring about peak fossil fuels. Voluntarily. And soon.
Globally, the vast majority of people want climate change dealt with. But can we bring ourselves to prioritise a safe planet over cheap fuels, flights, power and goods? Can we face calling on our leaders to end the double-think and constrain oil, coal and gas supplies on our behalf? Can humanity muster the restraint and cooperation needed to leave assets worth trillions in the ground?
This article is an edited version of an article written for The Guardian, reproduced with kind permission of the author.