Fossil fuel giants have known the harm they do for decades. But they created a system that absolves them of responsibility
Illustration: Eva Bee
Let’s stop calling this the Sixth Great Extinction. Let’s start calling it what it is: the “first great extermination”. A recent essay by the environmental historian Justin McBrien argues that describing the current eradication of living systems (including human societies) as an extinction event makes this catastrophe sound like a passive accident.
While we are all participants in the first great extermination, our responsibility is not evenly shared. The impacts of most of the world’s people are minimal. Even middle-class people in the rich world, whose effects are significant, are guided by a system of thought and action that is shaped in large part by corporations.
The Guardian’s polluters series reports that just 20 fossil fuel companies, some owned by states, some by shareholders, have produced 35% of the carbon dioxide and methane released by human activities since 1965. This was the year in which the president of the American Petroleum Institute told his members that the carbon dioxide they produced could cause “marked changes in climate” by the year 2000. They knew what they were doing.
BP’s oil refinery complex in Grangemouth, central Scotland. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A paper published in Nature shows that we have little chance of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating unless existing fossil fuel infrastructure is retired. Instead the industry intends to accelerate production, spending nearly $5tn in the next 10 years on developing new reserves. It is committed to ecocide.
But the biggest and most successful lie it tells is this: that the first great extermination is a matter of consumer choice. In response to the Guardian’s questions, some of the oil companies argued that they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products. But we are embedded in a system of their creation – a political, economic and physical infrastructure that creates an illusion of choice while, in reality, closing it down.
We are guided by an ideology so familiar and pervasive that we do not even recognise it as an ideology. It is called consumerism. It has been crafted with the help of skilful advertisers and marketers, by corporate celebrity culture, and by a media that casts us as the recipients of goods and services rather than the creators of political reality. It is locked in by transport, town planning and energy systems that make good choices all but impossible. It spreads like a stain through political systems, which have been systematically captured by lobbying and campaign finance, until political leaders cease to represent us, and work instead for the pollutocrats who fund them.
In such a system, individual choices are lost in the noise. Attempts to organise boycotts are notoriously difficult, and tend to work only when there is a narrow and immediate aim. The ideology of consumerism is highly effective at shifting blame: witness the current ranting in the billionaire press about the alleged hypocrisy of environmental activists. Everywhere I see rich westerners blaming planetary destruction on the birth rates of much poorer people, or on “the Chinese”. This individuation of responsibility, intrinsic to consumerism, blinds us to the real drivers of destruction.
A protester is detained during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in Whitehall, London. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters FacebookTwitterPinterest
The power of consumerism is that it renders us powerless. It traps us within a narrow circle of decision-making, in which we mistake insignificant choices between different varieties of destruction for effective change. It is, we must admit, a brilliant con.
It’s the system we need to change, rather than the products of the system. It is as citizens that we must act, rather than as consumers. But how? Part of the answer is provided in a short book published by one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam, called Common Sense for the 21st Century. I don’t agree with everything it says, but the rigour and sweep of its analysis will, I think, ensure that it becomes a classic of political theory.
It begins with the premise that gradualist campaigns making small demands cannot prevent the gathering catastrophes of climate and ecological breakdown. Only mass political disruption, out of which can be built new and more responsive democratic structures, can d
By studying successful mobilisations, such as the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 (which played a critical role in ending racial segregation in the US), the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989 (which snowballed until they helped bring down the East German regime), and the Jana Andolan movement in Nepal in 2006 (which brought down the absolute power of the monarchy and helped end the armed insurgency), Hallam has developed a formula for effective “dilemma actions”. A dilemma action is one that puts the authorities in an awkward position. Either the police allow civil disobedience to continue, thereby encouraging more people to join, or they attack the protesters, creating a powerful “symbolism of fearless sacrifice”, thereby encouraging more people to join. If you get it right, the authorities can’t win.
Among the crucial common elements, he found, are assembling thousands of people in the centre of the capital city, maintaining a strictly nonviolent discipline, focusing on the government and continuing for days or weeks at a time. Radical change, his research reveals, “is primarily a numbers game. Ten thousand people breaking the law has historically had more impact than small-scale, high-risk activism.” The key challenge is to organise actions that encourage as many people as possible to join. This means they should be openly planned, inclusive, entertaining, peaceful and actively respectful. You can join such an action today, convened by Extinction Rebellion in central London.
Hallam’s research suggests that this approach offers at least a possibility of breaking the infrastructure of lies the fossil fuel companies have created, and developing a politics matched to the scale of the challenges we face. It is difficult and uncertain of success. But, he points out, the chances that politics as usual will meet our massive predicament with effective action are zero. Mass dilemma actions could be our last, best chance of preventing the great extermination. SOURCE
Low-carbon options for heavy industry like steel and cement are scarce and expensive.
Working with a blast furnace to make steel and iron. Getty Images
Climate activists are fond of saying that we have all the solutions we need to the climate crisis; all we lack is the political will.
While it’s true enough as policy goes — we certainly have enough solutions to get started and make big changes — as a technical matter, it is incorrect. Truly defeating climate change will mean getting to net-zero carbon emissions and eventually negative emissions. That means decarbonizing everything. Every economic sector. Every use of fossil fuels.
And actually, there are some sectors, some uses of fossil fuels, that we do not yet know how to decarbonize.
Take, for instance, industrial heat: the extremely high-temperature heat used to make steel and cement. It’s not sexy, but it matters.
Heavy industry is responsible for around 22 percent of global CO2 emissions. Forty-two percent of that — about 10 percent of global emissions — comes from combustion to produce large amounts of high-temperature heat for industrial products like cement, steel, and petrochemicals.
Not much, I’m guessing. But the fact is, today, virtually all of that combustion is fossil-fueled, and there are very few viable low-carbon alternatives. For all kinds of reasons, industrial heat is going to be one of the toughest nuts to crack, carbon-wise. And we haven’t even gotten started.
Some light has been cast into this blind spot with the release of two new reports by Julio Friedmann, a researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University (among many items on a long résumé).
There’s a lot in these reports, but I’m going to guess your patience for industrial heat is limited, so I’ve boiled it down to three sections. First, I’ll offer a quick overview of why industrial heat is so infernally difficult to decarbonize; second, a review of the options available for decarbonizing it; and third, some recommendations for how to move forward. MORE
Form Energy, Antora, and others are trying to develop very cheap, very long-lasting storage to clean up the electricity system.
Here’s the problem: Solar panels and wind turbines are cheap, clean, reliable sources of electricity, right up until they’re not. The sun sets; the wind flags. They can’t power an electricity grid alone.
Coal and natural-gas plants can fill in the gaps today. But as climate regulations shutter more of these carbon-spewing sources, there will eventually be days or even weeks each year when renewables won’t be enough to keep the lights on. Something else will need to step in.
Form Energy is convinced that that something could be a battery. But it’d have to be a battery unlike any the world has seen.
To be as cheap, reliable, and flexible as natural gas, such a battery system would have to cost less than $10 per kilowatt-hour. Today’s best grid batteries, large lithium-ion systems, cost hundreds of dollars per kilowatt-hour (precise estimates vary). It could take decades even for that price to drop below $100.
It’s a huge leap. But Form’s founders think they could hit that target by developing big batteries that rely on extremely cheap, energy-dense materials. “We think we can get there,” says MIT professor Yet-Ming Chiang, cofounder and chief scientist at Form. “We think we can match technology to those requirements.”
A low-cost, long-lasting form of energy storage that could be built anywhere would be about the closest thing to a silver bullet for cleaning up the power sector. It would make the most of the sharply declining costs of solar and wind, without many of the environmental, safety, or aesthetic problems raised by other ways of balancing out fluctuating renewables.
The grid storage conundrum
Form, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, seized the attention of the battery world when it was created in 2017. Chiang is one of the world’s top battery scientists. He’s published hundreds of scientific papers, holds more than 80 patents, and has cofounded six startups. Several have earned valuations of more than $1 billion, including A123 Systems, which makes lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.
The main storage need on the grid today is known as “intraday storage.” It provides quick bursts of electricity for a few hours to smooth out mismatches between generation and demand throughout the day and at least into the early evening.
A growing amount of that storage comes from lithium-ion batteries, which also power phones, laptops, and electric cars and are steadily getting cheaper and more powerful. The amount of grid energy storage installed globally rose almost 150% last year to six gigawatt-hours, according to research firm Wood Mackenzie. That’s nearly double the average rate during the preceding five years, and lithium-ion systems accounted for most of the increase.
Tesla, for instance, plans to build hundreds of its new three-megawatt-hour Megapack battery systems in Moss Landing, California. The project, which includes other energy storage developers as well, would replace a trio of decades-old gas plants at the site run by Calpine, a large American power company.
But the sun and wind don’t just fade for hours; sometimes they dip for days or weeks. If we want to shift mainly to renewables, we’re going to need a lot more storage that can last a lot longer.
With today’s battery technology, the costs would skyrocket, says Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton who researches energy systems. It would require banks upon banks of lithium-ion batteries, many of which might be used only a few times a year. We’d also need to build more solar and wind farms to generate enough surplus electricity to charge them. (See “The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid.”)
The economics crumble in this scenario. “If these assets are supposed to lie idle for three-quarters of the year, you’ve just jacked up the effective cost by 4X,” says Don Sadoway, an MIT chemist who cofounded Ambri, which has developed a liquid-metal grid battery that lasts about an hour longer than lithium-ion ones.
But it’s actually even worse. We’d need to overbuild renewables and storage to meet demand during the rarest events: the prolonged ebbs in sun or wind that happen every few years, maybe even once a decade.
Regions don’t have to solve this problem entirely through storage. Meeting just a small share of total demand through other means would ease the cost targets that storage companies would need to reach, other research shows. That could include nuclear reactors, hydroelectric power, natural-gas plants with systems that capture carbon emissions, or long-distance transmission lines that can balance out renewables across time zones. But those options are politically unpopular, expensive, geographically constrained, or all three. Batteries have the advantage of not particularly bugging people.
We need to think about these future problems today because the necessary technologies could take years if not decades to develop. Areas with large shares of renewables, like California and Germany, already produce more solar or wind power than the grid can use during certain periods, undermining the economic incentives to build more. Many more regions are beginning to realize there’s a yawning gap that some technology will need to close if they hope to eliminate fossil fuels.
Developing cheap, long-duration batteries has stumped researchers for decades, mainly because the metals and chemicals that have worked best so far are expensive. Using them to meet longer storage needs means stacking up more and more of them. Form is guarded about its how it’s trying to sidestep these challenges, but part of the company’s approach is clear from a paper Chiang and colleagues published in the journal Joule in late 2017 (see “Serial battery entrepreneur’s new venture tackles clean energy’s biggest problem”).
All batteries contain two basic components: an electrolyte, usually a liquid chemical, and a pair of electrodes, the anode and the cathode, which are made of different materials (often, though not always, metals). Charged atoms, known as ions, carry current through the electrolyte between the two electrodes as the battery charges or discharges. In lithium-ion batteries, the electrolyte is some compound of lithium mixed with other chemicals.
In the 2017 paper, Chiang and his colleagues highlighted the potential of an “air-breathing aqueous sulfur flow battery.” A flow battery starts to get around the cost problem by separating the electricity-delivering components of the battery, including the electrodes, from the energy storage part, the electrolyte.
A standard flow battery has two different electrolytes, known as the catholyte and the anolyte, each of which can be stored in big, easily swapped tanks. So if you want more storage, you can just add larger tanks while those other pricey parts, including the electrodes, remain the same.
To make it really inexpensive, though, the electrolytes filling those giant tanks need to be cheap as well. The key to the flow battery in the Joule paper is to use a sulfur-based solution as the anolyte. Sulfur is among the most abundant elements in the earth’s crust as well as a by-product of fuel refining, so it’s extremely cheap and can store a lot of energy.
“Based on the charge stored per dollar, sulfur was more than a factor of 10 better than the next best thing,” Chiang told me in 2017.
Altogether, the chemical costs in such a flow battery could be as low as $1 per kilowatt-hour, according to the study.
But an electrochemical battery, whether based on sulfur or lithium-ion chemistry or something else, is only one way of storing large quantities of energy.
In early September, a group of engineers crowded around a squat, silver cylinder about the size of a grill tank in the back of a cluttered workshop at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, nestled in the hills looking over the San Francisco Bay. Aside from their intense gaze on the adjacent computer screen, the only hint that something was at work was an orange glow visible in a tiny window near the bottom of the device.
The researchers at Antora Energy are developing a new type of thermal storage. It’s a rarely used approach that retains energy in the form of extreme heat or cold in a variety of substances, like underground rocks or ice blocks. In Antora’s case, the substance inside the tank was a block of carbon that, at that moment, was running well above 2,000 ˚C.
The hope is they could use excess electricity from solar or wind farms to heat up that material, and then convert the heat back into electricity when it’s needed. Typically in thermal storage, this is still done in the highly inefficient 19th-century style: by creating steam that drives a turbine generator. But most of the energy gets wasted as a result of mechanical friction, steam leaks, and other issues.
Antora is testing a novel thermophotovoltaic system. It’s something like a solar panel, but it converts the infrared radiation coming off a hot object, rather than sunlight, into electricity. In late September, the researchers announced that they had set a new record by converting more than 30% percent of the heat flowing to the cell back into electricity in a lab experiment. They’re aiming to achieve more than 50% efficiency.
Mechanical methods offer another approach to grid storage. That includes pumping air into underground caverns, running rock-filled trains up hills, or transferring water between reservoirs at varying heights. All of these work in roughly the same way, using spare energy when it’s available to move something to a higher elevation or place it under pressure. Then when it’s released, we can harness the kinetic energy from the escaping air or descending trains or water to generate electricity.
Indeed, pumped hydro is by far our cheapest and most abundant source of grid energy storage today. The problem is you don’t always have enough water or hills near every power plant.
Under its “DAYS” program, ARPA-E has invested more than $30 million in 12 startups or research groups trying to crack the problem of grid storage. Those include Form’s flow batteries and Antora’s thermal system, as well as Quidnet Energy’s twist on pumped hydro: the San Francisco startup’s system pumps water into the gaps between confined rocks underground, creating pressure that forces the water back up and through a generator when electricity is needed.
Meanwhile, Japanese conglomerate SoftBank recently invested $110 million in the Swiss mechanical storage startup Energy Vault, which uses cranes and wires to stack up concrete blocks when renewables are generating excess electricity. It then drops those blocks back to the ground on those same wires, using their momentum to turn motors in the cranes in reverse and pump out electricity. (This video makes the concept clearer.)
The unconventional nature of some of these ideas shows just how difficult a problem it is for technologies to make that leap from storing a few hours’ to a few weeks’ worth of energy.
“If we’re talking about capturing, say, one month or two months’ worth of energy during the summer and having it available for one month or two months in the winter, those are gigantic sums of energy,” Sadoway says. “How many train loads of rocks do you have?”
Very big ifs
Most mechanical methods like trains or cranes require vast amounts of space. Thermal methods are inherently inefficient, since it’s hard to prevent the heat or cold from leaking away. And producing or burning most liquid fuels creates the very climate emissions we’re looking to avoid.
Batteries have the advantage of being clean, compact, mobile, and efficient. So if someone can make them cheap and long-lasting as well, they could plug into any grid. That’d enable wind and solar to provide far more of our electricity and, in turn, for clean electricity to meet much more of our total energy needs.
But those remain very big ifs. Some energy observers doubt Form can achieve its targets, or question how much natural gas such batteries would supplant even if they did. For their part, the company’s founders say it’s at least a decade-long project, with serious technical, financial, and market risks.
KLP executive explains decision to sell $77M in shares of oilsands companies
KLP, Norway’s largest pension fund, will no longer invest in companies deriving their income from oilsands. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)
Norway’s largest pension fund is no stranger to Alberta’s oilsands, having invested in several different oil producers over the last decade including Canadian and Norwegian-based companies. Now, those investments toward ramping up production from the bitumen-rich areas of northern Alberta have come to an end.
KLP, which has assets of about $94 billion, has sold its stocks in oilsands companies.
In its evaluation of the oilsands, the pension fund came to the conclusion that the oil production in the Fort McMurray region was akin to the coal industry in its harmful impacts to the environment.
“Both are very high in emissions in producing the energy or fuel and we’ve decided to treat them similarly,” said Jeanett Bergan, KLP’s head of responsible investment during a phone interview with CBC News from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“We are seeing a lot of signs in society that say ‘This is not what the future will look like.'”
The pension fund will no longer invest in any company with more than five per cent of its revenue derived from the oilsands or coal sectors. Previously, KLP had a 30 per cent threshold for oilsands revenue.
The decision affects five companies: Russia’s Tatneft PAO and Canada’s Cenovus Energy, Suncor Energy, Husky Energy and Imperial Oil. Recently, KLP sold $77 million in shares of those companies.
The oilsands sector is facing increasing scrutiny over its environmental performance because of climate change concerns. The industry has said it is making strides.
With the latest advances in technology and techniques, some oilsands companies, like Suncor, say emissions per barrel of oil produced from certain facilities is on par with the average barrel from the U.S.
Cenovus has said it reduced its greenhouse gas intensity by one-third over the last decade.
Since 2012, Canadian Natural Resources, another oilsands producer, reports it has cut the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of oil it produces, company-wide, by 29 per cent. It’s also reduced its methane emissions by 78 per cent during that time.
The advances in technology and environmental performance aren’t lost on KLP. Still, it’s not enough.
A heavy hauler mining truck dumps a load of bitumen ore at the Fort Hills, Alta., oilsands facility. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)
“Of course, there are a lot of efforts in doing things better all the time,” said Bergan. “At some point, you just have to take one more step and say ‘This is not part of the future. This is not part of the solution.'” MORE
The failure of BP and other oil giants to green-up their acts already seems like an epic mistake. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
BP PLC, Britain’s national oil champion, used to be called British Petroleum. Around the turn of the century, before Greta Thunberg was born, it doused itself in green and invented a cheery new starburst logo adorned with “Beyond Petroleum.” How cool and progressive was that?
Imagine one of the world’s biggest and grubbiest oil players admitting, in effect, that the oil era was coming to an end and that sheer survival, and social and environmental responsibility, meant evolving into a broad-based energy supplier with an ever-larger portfolio of renewable energy projects.
Sadly, “Beyond Petroleum” proved to be far more a marketing ploy than an exercise in strategic enlightenment. Within a few years, the green logo faded away, as did many of the company’s renewable-energy projects, such as the U.S. wind farm. BP wasn’t alone in sticking almost entirely with oil. Shell’s annual report says the company invested US$25-billion in oil and natural gas in 2018. It provides no figure for its spending on low- or zero-carbon projects, suggesting they are minor.
BP decided it’s a driller first and foremost. It expects oil demand to keep growing for the next 10 years; by 2040, it sees fossil fuels meeting “at least” 50 per cent of the world’s energy needs, with renewables under its conservative “evolving transition” scenario providing only 15 per cent (BP does not consider nuclear and hydro power renewable). So much for the 2015 Paris climate accord goals. They appear doomed.
The failure of BP and other oil giants to green-up their acts already seems like an epic mistake, for three reasons.
The first is the realization that potentially catastrophic climate change is no longer just the plot line of Hollywood horror-thrillers.
Ms. Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist who had been widely tipped to win the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday (she did not), has electrified millions of students around the world with her climate school-strike movement. The strikes, along with the Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience campaign, are aimed at compelling governments and big polluters to take action to prevent ecological collapse, and are doing a credible job in turning the oil companies into pariahs.
Investment funds around the world, from university endowments to church institutions, are responding by ramping up their fossil-fuel divestment policies. Suncor Energy Inc., the biggest operator in the Alberta oil sands, has trouble attracting investors from anywhere in Europe because of the project’s dirty image. At some point, the oil companies’ ability to fund themselves will suffer unless they can produce a credible black-to-green transformation strategy.
The second reason is that radical transformations are not just possible; they can be profitable too.
Take Denmark’s state-controlled Orsted A/S, the former Dong Energy. Dong’s fleet of coal-plants were among the dirtiest producers of electricity in Europe. The company alone was responsible for one-third of Denmark’s carbon dioxide emissions. About a decade ago, after Dong’s executives decided they could no longer tolerate running a company that was warming the planet and blackening lungs, the company launched an overhaul that would see it ditch the coal burners and embrace offshore wind power.
By last year, Dong, now rebranded as Orsted, was producing 75 per cent of its power from renewable sources and had become the world’s biggest operator of offshore wind farms. The transformation turned Orsted into a profitable stock market star, putting the lie to the theory that fossil fuel companies produce better returns. In the last year alone, the shares are up more than 50 per cent. BP is down 10 per cent, and Suncor down 20 per cent, over the same period. Would oil companies trade at higher values if they had thrown a heap of renewable energy into the mix? Probably.
The third reason is that if Big Oil refuses to change, change will be thrust upon it.
It’s already happening. Carbon taxes have arrived in North America and in Europe, and they are spreading. About 40 countries have already imposed some form of carbon price through taxation of fossil fuels or cap-and-trade programs (British Columbia’s carbon tax, at $30 a tonne, is considered a model). Canada is imposing a $20 a tonne carbon tax on provinces that don’t have their own version of the tax, among them Ontario and Manitoba. MORE
After decades of planning and fundraising, the long-ago destroyed Big House has been replaced for a new era
The community is kicking off five days of celebration in Bella Bella, B.C. today and is expecting as many as 2,000 guests from as far away as New Zealand to join to attend. (Charity Gladstone/The Canadian Press)
Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett of the Heiltsuk Nation says it’s hard to put into words the excitement and emotion she feels at Sunday’s opening of the first ceremonial Big House in the territory in modern history.
The last Big House in the First Nation’s territory along the B.C. coast was destroyed 120 years ago and the community has been planning and fundraising to build a new one for decades.
The opening means the community now has an appropriate space for spiritual and ceremonial events like potlatches and the naming of babies, which had previously been held in a community centre, she said.
“It feels great, it feels surreal, it feels sometimes like a dream,” Slett said in an interview.
No words for how this day has unfolded!
5 days of celebration
The community kicked off five days of celebration in Bella Bella on Sunday and expects as many as 2,000 guests to join them from as far away as New Zealand.
Gvakva’aus Hailzaqv, or House of the Heiltsuk, took 18 months to build and is constructed entirely of red and yellow cedar from the territory, including logs more than a metre wide, weighing eight tonnes, that were locally sourced and milled.
Morning views….. the time is almost here!!!
Indigenous artists have been working for 10 years to design, carve and paint four house posts that tell the origin story of the Heiltsuk people.
What happened to the last Big House?
William Housty, cultural adviser on the project, said the opening is an important step toward cultural revitalization, following a history of oppression.
“Missionaries claimed that the (last) Big House was blown down in a storm. But none of our people ever believed that because they chose that area to live in because it was so well sheltered from the storms,” he said.
The Heiltsuk believe the missionaries knocked down the last Big House in their efforts to assimilate members of the First Nation, he said.
It would be part of a series of efforts to erase Indigenous culture that also includes a federal ban on potlatches between 1880 and 1951.
Guiding builders on the construction of the Big House presented some challenges, considering no one was around 120 years ago to see the last Big House for themselves. But Housty said the First Nation has maintained a strong oral tradition that tracks the role of the Big House, supplemented by written accounts by fur traders, missionaries and others.
The Big House took 18 months to build and is constructed entirely of red and yellow cedar from the territory, including eight-ton and four-foot-wide logs with wood that was locally sourced and milled. (Heiltsuk Nation/The Canadian Press)
In one account, he said, the Big House is described as a living space. The rafters and house posts serve as the ribs and backbone of the structure, the front of the Big House is its face.
“It had the same sort of qualities we do as human beings,” he said.
Community members say a strong oral tradition helped to figure out how to build the new Big House in consideration of what the old one was like. It was destroyed 120 years ago. (Heiltsuk Nation/The Canadian Press)
The new building also breaks from the historic Big House in some ways, including measures to meet provincial building codes. It has about triple the capacity, with seating for up to 800 people and space for 1,000 if people stand.
“There’s a sense of pride knowing the dreams of so many ancestors are now being lived by our generation. People like my late grandfather who always talked about the Big House and how important it was aren’t here anymore,” Housty said. “Now we’re living their dreams.”MORE
Individual action alone won’t solve the climate crisis. So what political changes might help?
Lindsey oil refinery in north Lincolnshire. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Put climate on the ballot paper
Individual actions, such as flying less or buying electric cars, are helpful, but they will be futile without collective political action to slash emissions on a corporate, national and global scale. Politicians need to feel this is a priority for the electorate. That means keeping the subject high on the agenda for MPs with questions, protests, emails, social media posts, lobbying by NGOs and most of all through voting choices. Politicians need to know the public is behind them if they are to take on the petrochemical industry.
End fossil fuel subsidies
The coal, oil and gas industries benefit from $5tn dollars a year – $10m a minute – according to the International Monetary Fund, which described its own estimate as “shocking”. Even direct consumption subsidies for fossil fuels are double those for renewables, which the International Energy Agency says “greatly complicates the task” of tackling the climate crisis. The biggest subsidisers, the G20 nations, pledged in 2009 to end the handouts, but progress has been very limited. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, attacked the incentives in May, saying: “What we are doing is using taxpayers’ money … to destroy the world.” Any change has to include provisions for social justice. Cuts in fuel subsidies should not be used as an austerity measure that hurts the poor most.
Put a price on carbon
The idea of putting a price on carbon has been around since the early 1990s and a cap-and-trade system was incorporated into the 1997 Kyoto protocol. Under cap-and-trade, a limit is set on emissions and businesses issued with permits to emit carbon. Those cutting their emissions fastest can sell spare permits to laggards, while the cap is ratcheted down over time. But success depends on a strict cap and a scarcity of permits, and the EU’s scheme has been widely criticised. An alternative is a tax, which forces companies to factor the damage caused by climate change into their business decisions, and should encourage them to cut waste, cut emissions and use clean technology. The danger is of carbon leakage: that the extra cost in one country might encourage businesses to look elsewhere to site their factories. This can be dealt with by a border adjustment tax, as the EU’s new commissioner pledged this week. Carbon taxes don’t have to create economic losers, either – revenue neutral taxes redistribute the money to the people and are advocated by many.
Scale back demand for fossil fuels
Oil companies will sell oil for as long as there are buyers. Public shaming and social and political pressure can work to force companies to own up to their activities but most oil and gas around the world is produced by national oil companies, and they need no social licence to operate beyond that granted by their governments, which are often autocratic or unresponsive to public opinion. All companies are responsive to economic pressure, however. The only way to cut emissions from oil in the long term is to stop using oil. Reducing demand is driven by government regulation and by technological development (also driven by regulation), such as cheaper solar panels, offshore windfarms, electric cars and improved public transport.
If oil and gas are to be extracted, the least oil companies can do is extract efficiently. The World Bank has estimated that the amount of gas wastefully flared globally each year, if used for power generation instead, could supply all of Africa’s electricity needs. The FT reported earlier this year that flaring in Texas was lighting up the night sky as producers let off the gas to get the oil to market quickly, to turn a faster buck regardless of the environmental consequences. The World Bank wants an end to routine flaring globally by 2030 – yet in 2018 it increased.
Roll out large scale carbon capture and storage
Trapping and burying the CO2 from fossil fuel burning is possible but not yet deployed at scale. Without this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says tackling the climate crisis will be much more expensive. Oil companies have the expertise to roll out CCS but say that without a price on carbon emissions there is no commercial incentive. CCS could be used to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere by growing trees and plants, burning them for electricity, then sequestering the emissions. But the IPCC has warned that doing this at large scale could conflict with growing food.
Halt investment in fossil fuels
The energy transition poses many risks and opportunities for investors, but it cannot be that well-intentioned savers seeking to use their money to support renewable energy businesses and divest from fossil fuels are still inadvertently investing in oil, gas and coal companies. Green investing must be regulated to ensure it really is green.
Establish market metrics on climate change
Nearly three years after the Paris agreement, world markets still have no mandatory, comparable data to measure the risks posed by the climate crisis at a company level. Regulators must act urgently – slow-moving voluntary schemes are not enough. Last week, the governor of the Bank of England warned major corporations that they had two years to agree rules for reporting climate risks before global regulators devised their own and made them compulsory. If markets do not understand what climate change really means for car manufacturers, fossil fuel companies and energy firms, a climate-induced financial crisis is just a matter of time. Investment in fossil fuels must end. The fossil fuel divestment movement now has $11.5tn of assets under management committed to divestment. SOURCE