The fossil fuel industry’s obstructionist climate change tactics

Oil and gas firms tout speculative technologies such as solar geoengineering to deflect attention from their responsibility for global warming, and the need for a rapid, equitable transition to renewables.

Coal plants are at risk of becoming stranded assets for investors as the global energy sector shfits from fossil fuels towards renewables to combat climate change. Image: Pexels

As the world grapples with an unprecedented confluence of devastating floods, wildfires, and droughts, the debate about how to address the escalating climate crisis is increasingly distorted by big-business interests peddling false remedies and promoting deceptive narratives.

The fossil-fuel industry is a prime example. In a desperate effort to deflect attention from their historical responsibility for climate change, oil and gas companies have been touting various speculative technological fixes. But the stark reality is that these companies are engaging in a stalling tactic meant to enable them to keep polluting.

Given the urgency of the threat posed by climate change, we must rally behind the only real solution: a rapid, equitable, and complete phaseout of all fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and gas are the primary drivers of climate breakdown, accounting for more than 75 per cent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

But the harm caused by fossil fuels is not limited to climate change. Fossil fuels and petrochemicals such as plastics, fertilisers, and pesticides poison our air, water, and food and perpetuate environmental injustices. Air and water pollution from fossil fuels leads to countless deaths and illnesses globally, and the plastic pollution crisis is visible proof of the industry’s detrimental impact.

That is why reducing emissions is not enough. Mitigating the multifaceted environmental crises we face requires tackling its root cause: fossil fuels. A complete phaseout of oil, gas, and coal represents our greatest opportunity to minimise the catastrophic effects of global warming, limit the average temperature increase to no more than 1.5° Celsius, and safeguard our planet for future generations.

To this end, a growing coalition of governments, civil-society organisations, indigenous communities, and concerned citizens around the world is rallying behind the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Representing an actionable solution to the climate crisis, this proposed treaty would put us on a path toward a sustainable future by leaving no room for oil and gas companies to continue their reckless activities.

The fossil-fuel industry will not go down without a fight. This is evident in its latest greenwashing and delay tactic: the suggestion that we could reduce emissions through technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and use. But CCS currently captures less than 0.1 per cent of global emissions, has a decades-long history of overpromising and under-delivering, and is inefficient, costly, and does nothing to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels. Moreover, carbon-removal technologies that rely on CCS, such as bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) and direct air capture, pose significant risks, come with great uncertainties, and could impede more effective near-term measures.

But those profiting from business as usual have other powerful weapons in their arsenal. A new diversionary tactic gaining traction – primarily in the United States and among other major polluters – is solar geoengineering, also known as solar radiation modification (SRM). Advocates of this highly speculative and risky technofix believe that by spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere or by manipulating clouds to “dim the sun,” they could mask some of global warming’s worst effects, at least temporarily.

This approach, however, represents the ultimate false solution – a large band-aid with potentially disastrous consequences, including the potential to alter global precipitation patterns. And there’s one additional huge concern: while carbon lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years, sun-dimming particles in the stratosphere would dissipate within a year or less, necessitating constant renewal. Discontinuing solar geoengineering could trigger a catastrophic “termination shock,” causing global temperatures to rise so fast that humans and ecosystems could not adapt. In other words, this method would require indefinite maintenance and global governance.

Despite its flaws and risks, SRM is already distracting policymakers from the urgent task of phasing out fossil fuels. With the US and the European Union researching and discussing multilateral solar-geoengineering governance, a theoretical climate intervention strategy largely relegated to science fiction has emerged as a real and present danger to climate action and environmental justice.

The correct approach to this high-risk technology is to prevent its development and deployment, as more than 400 leading academics from 50 countries suggested when they called for an international non-use agreement on solar geoengineering in 2022. Policymakers must heed these warnings, reject SRM, and refrain from wasting precious time contemplating non-solutions.

Governments play a crucial role in the fight for a safer climate and a sustainable future on this planet. Over the coming weeks and months, political leaders will have a chance to demonstrate true climate leadership at key events such as the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit in New York on September 20 and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai later this year. They must seize these opportunities to take meaningful steps toward climate justice.

For starters, global leaders must follow the lead of countries like Vanuatu and Tuvalu – as well as numerous cities, health institutions, academics, and civil-society organisations around the world – and commit to working toward a robust and clear fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. By ensuring that no loopholes are left open for the industry to exploit, policymakers can prevent oil, gas, and coal producers from postponing the inevitable decline of the fossil-fuel-based economy.

Moreover, governments must stop supporting the fossil-fuel economy through subsidies for CCS and carbon-removal technologies, which merely serve as cover for further industry expansion and potentially doom us to a toxic future. At the same time, political leaders must heed the call for an international agreement preventing the development and deployment of solar geoengineering and should refrain from normalising this untested and dangerous technology as a viable climate policy option.

Most importantly, we can and must embark on a rapid and equitable transition away from fossil fuels. Our leaders owe it to all citizens and future generations to address today’s climate emergency with real solutions. Dangerous distractions that hinder meaningful action must be rejected. The world is burning, and there is no time to waste on illusory remedies.

Lili Fuhr is Director of the Fossil Economy Program at the Center for International Environmental Law.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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