Countries and industries around the globe must make the painful choice between lucrative fossil fuel exploitation and efforts to prevent climate change.
BUENOS AIRES — We are still living in the era of fossil fuels, yet we have begun the transition out of a period in human history that began with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. With technological changes lowering the price of clean energies, renewable sources are gradually displacing fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. But will it happen fast enough to save our planet?
The many speeches and good intentions on display at last December's Paris climate summit have not yet managed to slow the fossil fuels' carbon dioxide emissions from continuing to heat up the planet. The development of alternative energy sources is simply not happening fast enough. The U.S. Energy Department's latest global projections, released after the Paris agreement, are especially worrying: They estimate that greenhouse gas emissions will not drop, but will instead rise, by 34% between now and 2040.To achieve the Paris agreement's lofty goals — a global temperature rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius — the world should be emitting 33% less greenhouse gases than it does today.
Contrary to earlier predictions, we have as much fossil fuel reserves today as we have ever had in the past. Global oil reserves in 1980 were said to cover 30 years' consumption while today, in spite of increased consumption, reserves are expected to meet demand for at least another 53 years. Using all those reserves — already factored into company balance sheets — is incompatible with the goal of avoiding the two-degrees rise in temperatures set at the Paris summit.
A recent report by British Petroleum (BP) reveals that using all existing fossil fuel reserves in the coming years would result in emissions of 2.8 trillion tons of CO2, far above the maximum one trillion tons needed to achieve the temperature limit. The measure of these reserves is clearly creating a conflict of financial interests, as any decisive shift away from fossil fuels would cause major monetary losses for the owners of the oil stock — companies that currently make up around two-thirds of the world's GDP.
In other words, it is simply impossible to enjoy projected oil revenues while curbing emissions.
Still, a more responsible attitude is emerging among some top European oil firms, such as Shell, Total, BP, ENI, and Statoil. They promote tax payments to fossil fuel producers, a policy that would encourage a change in energy models and generate resources for technological changes required for a transition to renewables. Not all firms think this way, especially in the United States, where many agree with presidential candidate Donald Trump's rejection of both the Paris accords and the very existence of climate change itself.
What we do know, however, is that the world's progress on safeguarding the planet continues to move at a glacial pace.