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SCIENCE AND SOCIETY Keeping something in reserve

A new study calculates that the majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground to limit climate change, write ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

THE challenge of climate change is an existential crisis. Not for humanity, but for capitalism.

The energy consumption of our societies relies on the extraction of fossil fuels. Existing reserves of coal, crude oil and gas all formed slowly over millions of years. 

Though these fuels may seem unnatural, they are organic in origin: layers of plankton and plants laid down in sedimentary layers, heated and squeezed, transformed into a fuel. 

Their high energy density comes from trillions of cellular lives previously lived, soaking up sunlight before being transmuted by geology.  

There are already millions of victims of climate change dying today from increasing floods, heatwaves and famines caused by man-made climate change. 

The problem of global warming is harming people now. There is also the harm caused to future human lives — those who don’t exist yet — whose needs and wellbeing we balance against our own. 

Philosophical approaches to these future people differ, but we might think of these as our children or simply other humans with whom we must stand in solidarity. 

When we decide to prioritise our personal comfort now, we steal wellbeing from the future, forcing more future people into dire circumstances.

Burning fossil fuels also relies on stealing from accumulated time in the past. When coal, oil or gas are burned, this slow and steady accumulation of energy goes up in smoke. 

We are burning fossil fuels at a much faster rate than they naturally accumulate. In a literal sense, capitalism steals both from the past and from the future.

This stolen time is an amazing economic shortcut. Capitalism performs a conjuring trick, releasing ancient stored energy in a flash of smoke, producing immediate wealth now at the expense of negative impacts in the future.

Since the Industrial Revolution, expanding energy needs have been largely met by increasing fuel extraction. 

Across the world, corporations and governments have worked hand in hand to map the presence of these precious fuels, then drained the Earth dry. 

Aside from the huge ecological damage of extraction, we now know the climate change caused is so extreme that the balance between benefits and negatives of the fast burn of fossil fuels is detrimental to humanity.

We know with alarming confidence that continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels will lead to a global mean temperature increase. 

Some temperature increase is now unavoidable. International agreements focus on limiting the temperature increase below 1.5°C, by trying to work out how much further carbon can be added to the atmosphere and at what rate.

So it’s already known that we have to stop using fossil fuels. But since the world cannot do this overnight, how steep does the decline need to be?

A new study in Nature led by researchers from UCL has estimated the amount of fossil fuels that need to remain unextracted to allow a 50 per cent probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C. 

Their paper, led by first-author Dan Welby, found that nearly 60 per cent of oil and gas and 90 per cent of coal in the reserves that currently exist has to remain unextracted to keep within a “carbon budget.” That gives a hard limit on what future fossil fuels could be considered available.

The team also estimated that global oil and gas production needs to decline by 3 per cent a year. Peak production needs to occur “now or during the next decade.” 

Fossil fuel projects are costly and long-term projects. This assessment demonstrates that current and planned projects to extract fossil fuels cannot be continued.

Remember that this estimate is just for a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to less than 1.5°C. A higher confidence would require even more drastic reductions. The reason the team did not estimate this is probably because it would be too depressing.

There are some “promising signs” in the ambitious model. Coal production peaked in 2013. Oil output is estimated to be near peak demand. 

Furthermore, the team’s model estimates for unextractable fuels are higher than previous ones in part due to improvements in low-carbon technologies which will decrease demand for fossil fuels and make it economically unattractive to extract more. 

The model also assumes substantial improvements in carbon dioxide removal technology to take in carbon from the atmosphere. This is positive, but risky: false confidence in that option inevitably means that the can continues to be kicked down the road.

Fossil fuels are not evenly distributed around the world, with concentrations of reserves of oil in the Middle East and Canada, as well as gas in Russia. 

The study therefore makes interesting reading from a geopolitical perspective, particularly for the United Nations summit COP26 in Glasgow on November 1-12. 

The future trajectories of all regions will be affected not just by climate change itself but also by this disruption to their economies as fossil fuels stop being used.

The global economy is built on the assumption that fossil fuels are good economic prospects. For example, as scientists within the British university sector, our pension scheme (the universities superannuation scheme) has over £1bn invested in fossil fuels companies and is a 10 per cent owner of Heathrow airport. To put it mildly, these are not good investments.

As the scientists behind the study put it, there is still a “disconnect” between “the production outlook of different countries and corporate entities and the necessary pathway to limit average temperature increases.” Quite. 

This disconnect is fundamental: it is corporate capitalism. As David Whyte puts it in his book Ecocide, the structure of corporations is inherently deadly. The corporation is “the perfect vehicle for devouring nature.”

It is not hyperbole to point out that corporations have more of a plan for the next hundred years than governments do. Corporations have plans for their existence in a world with over 1.5°C of warming. The rest of us do not.

The challenge of climate change should be seen not just as a need to change the energy we use to destroy the environment, but an opportunity to fundamentally change the global economy. 

Corporations will fight this change; citizens must unite against them. The power of capitalism really does rest on borrowed time. It’s optimistic, but we’d like to believe that our lifetimes will see this time come to an end. It has to start now.


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