Duncan Clark’s Burning Question: How to Quit Fossil Fuels?

If we are to cut greenhouse gas emissions to levels low enough to mitigate the threat of runaway climate change, the way forward is as simple as it is daunting: we can’t burn half of the world’s remaining oil, coal and gas reserves. No amount of increased energy efficiency, reduced consumption or emissions trading will make a difference unless the greater part of the planet’s fossil fuels remains in the ground. But with our civilization driven by carbon and the global economy fired by the soaring profits of the energy sector, how on Earth can we resist the temptation to extract and burn?

This is the challenge at the heart of The Burning Question, a stark assessment of the complex political and social reality of climate change by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. Recently released in North America, the book is galvanizing and bleak in equal measure, providing a much-needed and long overdue picture of what it would really look like to get serious about averting cataclysmic climate change. Unlike much of the writing on climate, The Burning Question does not simply present the terrifying math in order to rally the world to action. Instead, Clark and Berners-Lee face the dizzying complexity of the problem head-on, detailing how rising greenhouse gas emissions relate to international politics, the financial system and human psychology. The book is surely the most detailed, systematic attempt yet at thinking through the barriers to action on climate and what can be done to overcome them.    

In an interview with DeSmog Canada, co-author and Guardian consultant environment editor Duncan Clark discussed the difficulties of convincing the entire world to collectively phase out a source of energy:

The clear question your book poses is how we can leave half of our proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Could you explain why the numbers demand that we focus on leaving the fuels in the ground, rather than pursuing strategies like increasing efficiency and reducing consumption? In other words, could you briefly explain what you describe in the book as the "balloon squeezing" effect? 

It’s usually taken as a given that increasing energy efficiency and building clean energy capacity will help reduce global fossil fuel use. But – as the book shows – there’s been considerable progress on all these fronts in the last half century but none of that appears to have made a jot of difference to global carbon emissions, which have continued accelerating at the same rate observed since 1850. Why? Because none of these developments in themselves necessarily reduce the rate at which the world extracts and burns fossil fuels – something that is mainly driven by a feedback loop in which more energy of any type boosts economic activity and technological progress, which in turn increases both demand for and supply of oil, coal and gas.

In the very long run fossil fuels will become uneconomic and scarce but for a number of reasons (including the amount of fossil fuel infrastructure that we are continuing to build) there’s no prospect of that happening in time to avoid dangerous climate change. In that context it’s obvious that thinking about alternative energy and efficiency isn’t enough. We also need as a world to consciously constrain fossil fuel use – for example with taxes, caps or obligations on extractors to bury the carbon they pull out of the ground.

“Ballon-squeezing” is the phrase we coin in the book to describe the myriad ways that apparent carbon cuts in one home, company, sector or national economy get cancelled out by increases elsewhere. It boils down to this: globally there’s no lack of demand for energy so fossil fuels not burned in one place have a habit of getting burned elsewhere.

How do the Canadian tar sands play into the numbers? How much of the tar sands falls under the category of proven fossil fuel reserves? Further, what do you think of James Hansen's rhetoric about the tar sands being "game over" for the climate—is it a helpful call to action, or does it distract from the larger challenge of leaving half of all conventional fossil fuels in the ground? 

According to the Alberta government, the region’s proven oil reserves (i.e. those deposits that could be viably extracted with current technology and at current energy prices) could produce 170 billion barrels. That’s around a tenth of global proved reserves and more than is held by Iran or Iraq – so a significant slice of the world’s oil, though in terms of carbon content probably only a few percent of the carbon in the world’s proven fossil fuels reserves.

But that’s not really the point. The reason the tar sands have become such a pressing issue is that they’re an example of how governments and companies are continuing to try and expand their fossil fuel reserves despite the obvious fact that we already have more than we can safely burn. If North America and other relatively rich regions are so gung ho about investing money and building infrastructure to increase fossil fuel supplies, they can hardly expect, say, China and India to slow the rate at which they extract and burn coal. In that sense, I think planning to extract all the proven tar sands reserves does in a sense represent “game over” for the climate, no matter precisely how much carbon they contain.

And of course the proven reserves are only part of the picture – around 9% of the total Alberta carbon deposits. So there could be much more coming on stream in future years and decades.

"This map shows how the listings of coal, oil and gas reserves are distributed, indicating that capital markets are supporting the continued exploitation of fossil fuel reserves around the world." From the Carbon Tracker Initiative.

I want to touch on two aspects of the energy feedback loop:

1) You’ve identified the predicament that burning fossil fuels has both enabled the spectacular growth in technology and living standards of the last two centuries, while also bringing us to a point where it could make continued human civilization problematic. How can the question of eliminating fossil fuel use (i.e. the fuel of modern civilization) be communicated without seeming to appeal to anti-modern, primitivist thinking? Do you think there is a role to be played by environmentalists that rely on a moral critique of modernity?

There’s nothing anti-modern about the idea that if a product is shown to have dangerous side-effects for society then it should be phased out and replaced with safer alternatives. In my view, that’s how this issue needs to be understood and communicated – and I think it’s unhelpful that the discussion so often gets blurred with broader debates about capitalism or modernity or localism or economic growth or whatever else.

That’s not to say that it’s possible to make sense of climate change in a vacuum. The book argues that understanding our failure to solve the problem means grappling with everything from electoral funding to human psychology. But understanding the context is different from using climate change as a tool for pushing existing political, social and aesthetic positions. For me it’s not about challenging modernity; it’s about phasing out a product we now understand to be unacceptably dangerous.

2) A typical argument that arises in these discussions is the Malthusian question of overpopulation, with its problematic racist implications. How do you respond to people who see overpopulation as the central challenge of confronting climate change? 

In the book we note that in the last fifty years, the growth rate of human population has fallen like a stone. But the growth rate of emissions haven’t been affected – which is no surprise when you consider that reductions in population growth tend to go hand in hand with increases in livelihoods and energy use. Yes population is a factor in this whole issue but even if the population leveled off tomorrow it’s not by any means obvious that this would have a significant impact on global emissions.

From the Carbon Tracker Initiative.

Let’s talk about the economic impacts of addressing climate change. The necessary steps you describe (including spiralling fuel costs and writing off trillions of fossil fuel reserves, impacting everything from the biggest banks to individual pensioners) sound like a recipe for a severe economic depression. It seems to me that an equally burning question based on the data could be: how can we remake our economies and political systems in order to survive leaving fossil fuels in the ground? Do you think our current economic system is capable of withstanding the shock of leaving the fuels in the ground?

In the book we conclude that there’s no way to know what impact rapidly phasing out unabated fossil fuel use would have on the global economy. It depends on too many factors, from the future price of clean energy and carbon capture to whether or not societies embrace divisive alternatives such as wind farms and nuclear plants. And historical trends and examples don’t tell us much because the world has never tried to phase out a major energy source before.

But two things can be said for sure. First, if we started constraining fossil fuels in a serious way, that would trigger an explosion of innovation and investment in renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and energy efficiency. Second, the longer we leave it to reduce global emissions, and the more money we invest in developing potentially unburnable fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure, the harder it will be to avoid dangerous levels of warming without contracting the world economy. So however potentially unpalatable the medicine might be, we need to start taking it soon to avoid more serious treatment later.

In British Columbia, the government proudly advertises that the provincial carbon tax has not had any adverse effect on the economy. Do you think it’s possible to respond to the burning question without causing adverse effects? If not, how do you see citizens and governments coming together to deliberately inflict economic hardship on themselves?

I don’t know much about the British Columbia example but as a rule I think you can only meaningfully judge the economic and environmental impacts of carbon regulation when you consider the global picture. For example, British Columbia is presumably heavily reliant economically on goods from and investments in the wider world, across which emissions are still accelerating. So it doesn’t make much sense to look at it in isolation. 

Personally I don’t think there’s any point pretending that solving climate change would have no unwanted side-effects. Even if global economic growth continued largely unaffected (which is a huge if, as discussed above), reducing fossil fuel use at the rate required to avoid dangerous warming would have serious implications for oil and coal companies and the governments, communities, companies and investors that rely on them economically.

The key question is when will enough of the world’s people care sufficiently about climate change – and the long-term economic risks it will bring – to make constraining fossil fuel supplies politically viable.

Following from that, what kind of problems are associated with regional or national goals for cutting emissions? When a province like BC or a country like the UK aims for major reductions in carbon emissions, do they give a false picture of the costs/ease, while offloading the burden to other countries within the larger global system?  

Yes, there’s definitely a risk of that. In the book we note that the continents and countries pushing hardest for a global deal tend (unsurprisingly) to be those with relatively few economically viable fossil fuel reserves. The UK is a good example. It has small remaining proven fuel reserves and is unusually reliant on imported goods and a financial sector with a big stake in overseas extractive industries. So it's perhaps not surprising that it currently has relatively ambitious carbon targets, because it has less to lose than many other countries from a global carbon deal. But that’s a reason for the UK and other such countries to do more, not less. Without some nations pushing ahead and showing leadership, we’ll remain stuck where we are.

What are some ways that governments of nations with large remaining fossil fuel reserves (such as Canada) can be pressured to leave their fossil fuels in the ground? Would this involve some kind of compensation scheme?

Many forms of pressure could be applied, from the gentle – putting climate change as a key discussion point at all international forums, such as the G8 – through to the more hard-nosed, such as trade restrictions on countries that are refusing to play ball. The latter would of course open a can of worms in terms of the World Trade Organisation and barriers to trade, but until world leaders feel empowered and compelled to have some hard conversations, then it seems very unlikely that we're going to leave all that carbon in the ground. One groups of economists even suggested banning nations that refuse to cut their emissions from the Olympics games!

Visit The Burning Question website for more information. 


David Ravensbergen’s writing has appeared in Discorder, The Tyee, the Montreal Review of Books and the Montreal Mirror. Originally from…

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