Climate Change and The Fossil Fuel Paradox

The United States and China have not submitted anything, while the European Union is working on a redefinition of the National Voluntary Contributions to reflect the additional cuts that will result from plans against the energy crisis and to release Russia’s gas.

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Based on its latest projections, EIA said global carbon dioxide emissions from energy activities will rise from 36 billion metric tons in 2012, the baseline year used for the 2016 outlook, to 43 billion metric tons in 2040. [ Photo: Credit: PhotoDisc/American Scientific]

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator” ~ Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations

The Secretary-General made the above statement at his opening speech at the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP/27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which opened on 7 November in Egypt and was attended by 110 heads of State. He went on to say “ It is the defining issue of our age.  It is the central challenge of our century.  It is unacceptable, outrageous, and self-defeating to put it on the back burner.  Indeed, many of today’s conflicts are linked with growing climate chaos”.  

This has all been said before at preceding COPs. Only, the rhetoric was stronger this time, perhaps delivered in the hope that it would shock a  quiescent world out of its slumber of ineptitude and feckless insouciance. The Secretary-General called for “a historic Pact between developed and emerging economies – a Climate Solidarity Pact.  A Pact in which all countries make an extra effort to reduce emissions this decade in line with the 1.5-degree goal.  A Pact in which wealthier countries and International Financial Institutions provide financial and technical assistance to help emerging economies speed their own renewable energy transition.   A Pact to end dependence on fossil fuels and the building of new coal plants – phasing out coal in OECD countries by 2030 and everywhere else by 2040”.

All this is old hat, regurgitated over the years albeit now presented in a new format.  Hundreds of billions of dollars have been promised by the developed countries to the developing countries as assistance to face the impending disaster which is threatening their ecosystems, food supplies and their very existence as nations on this planet. That promise has not yet been delivered, but Ibrahim Pam, Climate Expert and Head of the Green Climate Fund expressed enthusiasm at COP/27  that “ there is heavy support for the creation of the Climate Change Support Fund, especially for developing Countries”.

There is no gainsaying that in this Anthropocene, climate change is the most serious natural disaster we are facing and that, as agreed in the Paris Agreement of 2015, the world has to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.  Furthermore, one has to agree that the scientific community has approached this issue with vigour and dexterity.  However, what strikes one in this confederacy of pomp and circumstance is the diversity of opinion and approach.  China and India – two of the biggest users of coal – have given every indication that they intend to keep using coal, let alone reduce their use. Of the big polluters, only Britain and Australia have presented new climate targets. The United States and China have not submitted anything, while the European Union is working on a redefinition of the National Voluntary Contributions to reflect the additional cuts that will result from plans against the energy crisis and to release Russia’s gas.

There is also a paradox in the call for a Solidarity Pact to “end dependence on fossil fuels and the building of new coal plants – phasing out coal in OECD countries by 2030 and everywhere else by 2040.  This raises questions such as: do the advantages and benefits brought to bear by the use of fossil fuels as sources of energy outweigh the damage caused by fossil fuels? what would a world without fossil fuels look like in terms of overall living standards and sustenance of humankind? Alex Epstein – an energy expert and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress – in his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, while claiming that the use of fossil fuel would grow in the future and that fossil fuel use would only be of benefit to the flourishing of humanity far outweighing its negative effects, including negative climate impacts, asserts that fossil fuels provide low-cost, reliable energy that would serve a world which would exponentially need more energy progressively, and be of tremendous use to the billions who do not use energy at present.  Furthermore, low-cost fossil fuels would be needed to power machines which are only increasing in output to cope with the growing existential demands of the world population and to combat climate change, more importantly, fossil fuels would play a role in the technology that would be the impetus for human ingenuity to control vacillations of the climate.  These claims are further buttressed by the anticipated results of the arguments pro-fossil fuels – that instead of destroying the world, the use of fossil fuels would make the world a far better place, where billions could be rescued from poverty, giving them a higher quality of life and safety from the hazards wrought by climate change.

In his second book Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas – Not Less Epstein argues that the rapid elimination of fossil fuel usage, if fully applied would cause “apocalyptic” effects, making people impoverished in a dangerous and miserable world. As food for thought, Epstein goes on to say that, although we should take climate change seriously, the use of fossil fuels per se should not be subject to a moral obligation to eliminate it, saying that historically, there have been instances where the justification by experts of such evils as slavery, racism and eugenics have been since rejected by society as morally reprehensible.   

Whichever way the wind blows at COP/27, one thing is clear: States should put their money where their mouth is and commit, as the Secretary General of the United Nations has said,  to a collaborative solidarity pact towards financing and implementing a global mechanism that would enable the world to reach the target of the Paris Agreement. Whatever pompous, pedantic and pretentious speeches are made, the COP should accept that the system so far has not worked despite pledges, promises and mechanisms. The United Nations Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report 2022 Closing the Window says: “Countries’ new and updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) submitted since COP 26 reduce projected global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2030 by only 0.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e), compared with emissions projections based on mitigation pledges at the time of COP 26. Countries are off track to achieve even the globally highly insufficient NDCs”.

The concern of the world is that there will be serious adverse effects on the world if the global temperature goes above 1.5 c of pre-industrial levels during this century.  Scientists have opined that if this target is achieved the climate change problem will at least be alleviated. However, the problem with the climate change solutions offered so far is that, although the aim of the Paris Agreement of 2015 – which was entered into by States under the auspices of the UNFCCC and which entered into force on 4 November 2016, is to achieve not more than  2 c  above pre-industrial levels this century and most desirably bring it down to 1.5 c – nothing much has been done to implement a concrete global plan to achieve this target.  This makes the characteristics of the Agreement – which are that it is universal and legally binding, fair and differentiated, and sustainable and dynamic – open to question.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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