Despite early expectations, humanity has survived seventy
years of the era of the nuclear bomb. As things stand, however, we are likely
to seal our fate in the new era of the carbon bomb: massive oil, gas or coal
projects that, if exploited, will generate carbon emissions that will push us way
into the territory of dangerous and irreversible climate change. Canadian tar
sands and oil under the Arctic are amongst the best known carbon bombs, but
there are many others, ranging from offshore oil in Brazil, to the coal
deposits of Australia’s Galilee Basin. If the Galilee project was a country it
would be the world’s seventh biggest emitter of carbon.
These carbon bombs need to be viewed in the context of a world that has de facto carbon budget, one of the few things to come out of the farcical climate change talks at Copenhagen. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves have to stay underground if we are to keep within the maximum 2 degrees temperature rise over pre-industrial levels that is considered even close to safe.
Another way of looking at this is that 80% of the value of the companies that control these reserves - between $1.5 to $2 trillion - cannot be realised. These have become stranded assets. The Governor of the Bank of England is amongst those who recognise this threat, but the fossil fuel companies either remain silent or assume that it is someone else’ reserves, not theirs, that will be stranded. There is no plan.
So what are we doing about it? Sadly, no surprises here. The world’s political leaders, long beholden to the oil and mining behemoths are failing in one of the key responsibilities expected of them by any population: security. The corporate capture of politics and the leadership deficit that results is, ultimately, one of the greatest threats facing people and planet.
This is manifested in many ways, and any one of them defies logic. Taken collectively it is too tempting to believe that there is some kind of conspiracy going on, and there probably is. How else to explain the $5.3 trillion of subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry annually (that’s $10 million every minute) - the politicians’ wet dream of a big oil, gas or coal find in their country; the deafening silence from both politicians and industry about the stranded assets issue; the scaling back in investment in renewables, such as that just announced by Britain’s government.
On top of all of this, a carbon bomb-equivalent has just gone off, emitting more carbon every day than that produced from all economic activity in the US - the forest fires in Indonesia. The haze, carbon emissions in visible form, that result from this annual ‘fire season’ have long been a regional problem, but the scale of this year’s makes it a global scandal, and has resulted in a serious diplomatic spat between Indonesia and its neighbours. But that hasn’t stopped Indonesia and Malaysia founding the Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries, which is attempting to reverse the zero-deforestation pledges made by some of the world’s leading palm oil producers and buyers at last year’s climate change talks, claiming that these represent an infringement of their sovereignty.
Sadly, ‘sovereignty’ is just another smoke-screen; a fug used by many countries when challenged to fulfil their social, environmental and legal responsibilities. In this case, by late October many parts of Malaysia and Singapore had been brought to a standstill. Over 500,000 respiratory tract infections had been reported, and the fires had cost the Indonesian government over $30 billion.
Climate change doesn’t respect sovereignty. Indonesia’s fires, like all carbon emissions, do not respect national borders. The reality is of course that these governments, like those of Europe and the US, have also been captured by their corporate lobby and are placing the corporate interest over and above that of their citizens and the world at large. The total failure to reduce carbon emissions since the Earth Summit 23 years ago is depressing enough, but for countries whose populations are already hit by climate-related health issues to actively promote regression as policy is stunning.
The climate talks in Paris present our political leaders with the opportunity to make up for their miserable record by showing the leadership needed to tackle the climate change challenge. Governments must work with the fossil fuel industry to publicly acknowledge the reality of stranded assets. They must admit that the fossil fuel industry is on the way out, but that they have the golden opportunity to be part of the solution, for example by investing their vast exploration budgets in clean energy. Similarly, the world’s remaining intact forests must stay that way. Failure to achieve these goals is simply handing a poison chalice to a generation or two down the line, when the choices will be fewer and the impacts more stark.