Why leaving fossil fuels in the ground is good for everyone

January 9, 2015 8:21 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As you read this, a monster of a bill is passing smoothly and quietly through Britain’s parliament. It’s so big and complex, and covers so many topics, that it makes a mockery of democracy.

The infrastructure bill epitomises the rising trend of legislation-stuffing:cramming so many unrelated issues into one bag that parliamentary votes become meaningless. MPs must either accept this great bundle of unrelated measures in its entirety or reject it in its entirety. So laws can pass which no one in their right mind would have voted for.

Bills like this are good places for burying bad news, and this one is a graveyard.

Among its outrageous and scarcely-debated provisions, slipped in by the government some time after parliamentary debates began, is a measure that undermines every claim it has made about preventing dangerous climate change. It is a legal obligation on current and future governments to help trash the world’s atmosphere.

The government already has a legal obligation to do the opposite. The Climate Change Act 2008, supported by all the major parties, commits successive governments to minimise the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Infrastructure Act 2015 will commit successive governments to maximise them.

Needless to say, that’s not quite how it is expressed. The bill obliges governments to produce strategies for “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum“: in other words for getting as much oil out of the ground as possible. Oil is extracted to be burnt; burning it releases greenhouse gases; maximising recovery means maximising greenhouse gases.

The Infrastructure Act, if passed – and so far it is scarcely being contested (hello Labour, do you still exist?) – will be the Climate Change Act’s evil twin. Both acts oblige current and future governments to report at fixed periods on how they will achieve their contradictory objectives. The same person, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, will be responsible for both policies: ensuring that the UK both consumes less oil and produces more. Perhaps he’ll seek to minimise climate change by day, then, after a stiff dose of potion, come out at night to maximise it.


But there could not be a greater contrast between the ways in which the two acts (or their relevant clauses) were developed. The Climate Change Act was the result of a massive campaigning effort, over many years, by citizens’ movements that mobilised public opinion and pressed MPs to act on it. The provisions in the infrastructure bill were slipped surreptitiously into the back of a legislativejuggernaut that was already rolling down a six-lane motorway. In other words, the first act was an example of how democracy is supposed to work; the second is an example of how it gets corrupted.

Now, on the day that MPs sit down in committee to discuss this bill, the journal Nature publishes the most detailed scientific paper yet on how much fossil fuel should be left in the ground if we’re to have a chance of preventing more than 2C of global warming.

To deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2C of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel reserves unexploited.

I should point out that reserves are just a small fraction of resources (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The reserve is that proportion of a mineral resource which has been discovered, quantified and is viable to exploit in current conditions: in other words that’s good to go.

The Nature paper estimates that a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. 2C is dangerous enough; at present we are on course for around 5C by the time the century ends, with no obvious end in sight beyond 2100.

The only sensible response to such findings, which some of us have been advocating for years, is a global agreement to leave these unburnable fossil fuels in the ground. But it’s not just that no such agreement exists, no such agreement has ever been mooted.

Researching Don’t Even Think About It, which I see as the most important book published on climate change in the past few years, George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or even position paper on limiting fossil fuel production put forward during international climate negotiations.

“From the very outset fossil fuel production lay outside the frame of the discussions and, as with other forms of socially constructed silence, the social norms among the negotiators and policy specialists kept it that way.”

I would guess that it is not altogether inconvenient for governments to ignore the role of fossil fuel companies in causing climate change.

While most states have not taken the astonishing, ecocidal step of making it a legal obligation, almost all are pursuing the same policy as the United Kingdom: maximising the production of fossil fuels. And almost all pay lip service to the idea of minimising greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no attempt to resolve this contradiction, or even to acknowledge it. They don’t have to. They know that it will resolve itself. If the stuff keeps coming out of the ground, it will be burnt, without regard to the feeble policies seeking to limit its consumption.

I believe I might have been the first person to suggest in the media that the best means of addressing climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground, in a Guardian column in 2007. Since then, this solution has been championed by the indefatigable Bill McKibben, through his Do the Math tour and 350.org, and it has been picked up by many other organisations.

But still our politicians pretend not to hear. Even the current secretary of state for energy and climate change in the UK, Ed Davey, who is often fairly responsive, blocks his ears and sings loudly when the crashing contradictions in his role are mentioned. Otherwise, how could he creep out at night to reverse the policies he pursues by day? Like Dr Jekyll, he could not live with himself if he was fully aware of what Mr Hyde was doing.

Were the world’s governments to regulate the wellhead rather than just the tailpipe, logistically the task would be a thousand times easier. Instead of trying to change the behaviour of 7bn people, they would need to control just a few thousand corporations.

These companies would buy permits to extract fossil fuels in a global auction. As a global cap on the amount of fossil fuel that could be burnt came into force, the price would rise, making low carbon technologies, such as wind, solar and nuclear, much better investments. The energy corporations would then have no choice but to start getting out of dirt and into clean technologies. The money from the auction could be used either to compensate poorer nations for not following us down the coal hole or to help them survive in a world in which some dangerous warming – but hopefully no more than 2C – will inevitably occur.

For 23 years, governments have been wasting precious time by pursuing an unworkable solution. Perhaps that was their intention? But if the climate talks in Paris in December are to have any meaning or purpose, they should abandon the self-defeating policy of addressing only consumption, and concentrate on restricting production. This, I believe should be the focus of our campaigns. Through groups like 350.org, we must make this such a potent electoral issue that we drag governments out of the clutches of the fossil fuel industry.

You think that’s tough? Well try the alternative: living in a world with 5C of global warming, in other words a world of climate breakdown. By comparison, almost anything looks easy.

  • This article was first published in the Guardian on 7 January 2015
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  • For more articles by George Monbiot go to www.monbiot.com
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