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Be realistic—why we can stop fossil fuel investment

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Impossible? Stopping investment in fossil fuels immediately can be done—but it takes a break from the priorities of the system to do it
Issue 2768
Extinction Rebellion is demanding an end to all new fossil fuel investment
Extinction Rebellion is demanding an end to all new fossil fuel investment (Pic: Extinction Rebellion)

“Demand the impossible,” says Extinction Rebellion, as it campaigns for banks stop all new fossil fuel investment immediately.

Some will question whether an immediate halt is really possible. Won’t that lead to millions of people going without power, they ask.

But an answer to that question comes from an unusual quarter—the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA was formed by Western governments in the midst of the 1973 oil crisis which cut global fuel supplies.

The establishment body now sees the danger of rapid climate change as far more pressing.

It says the only way to save the planet is for rich countries to achieve zero-emissions from electricity by 2035, and the rest of the world by 2040.

The body insists that this can be done without plunging humanity into darkness.

But that’s only if there is “unparalleled” investment in renewable energy and clean energy—and there are “unprecedented” levels of international cooperation between governments.

Perhaps its most uncompromising insistence is that countries must halt all investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and approve no new coal plants.

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The IEA wants all internal combustion engine cars phased out by 2035 and all coal and oil power plants by 2040.

It says clean energy ­investment across the world would have to more than triple in the next nine years to around £3 trillion to meet its initial targets. That’s even if global power usage per person on the planet falls to reflect more efficient energy use.

And, in order to meet the more ambitious targets for 2050, the IEA says the billions would need to be invested today in research and development.

This, it says, will require “huge increases in electricity system flexibility”.

That means new batteries, ­hydrogen-based fuels, hydropower and more investment will be needed to ensure reliable electricity supplies.

Within the environmental ­movement there is some debate on whether it is possible to make such drastic changes in time without reducing global power usage.

Chris Smith, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds university, is enthusiastic about the IEA report but says more must be done to curb demand for energy.

“The key driver of reducing emissions, reducing global energy demand, remains underexplored,” he says. “While the final world energy demand in the IEA’s net-zero 2050 scenario is below today’s levels, it is still more than twice the energy requirements for all of the 10 billion people projected to be alive in 2050 to have a decent quality of life.”

The most important question raised by both Smith and the IEA is whether such radical changes can be made within the context of our ­economic system.

Extinction Rebellion’s “Impossible demand” is only deemed absurd because of the ­constraints capitalism imposes on us.

There are jobs in renewables—unions have no excuse

Some unions have used the need to defend their members’ jobs as an excuse not to join demands for a rapid ending of fossil fuel power.

The GMB union, for example, has fiercely opposed setting an accelerated target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, warning of widespread job losses.

The Unite union, while accepting the need for ambitious climate goals, has supported a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport for much the same reason.

Both unions urge caution, arguing there must be enough time for a transition from one form of energy generation to another.

In their vision, gas-fired power stations would slowly be replaced by greener alternatives.

There would then be time for workers to transition from one set of skills to another.

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But, as the recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change shows, time is desperately short. To prevent disaster radical action must start immediately.

There is no contradiction between demanding the ending of fossil fuel power generation and wanting to protect jobs.

Extinction Rebellion and the IEA both point out that moving to renewable and clean energy would require the biggest ever shift in resources, and huge new manufacturing processes. Millions of highly skilled jobs would be created.

Thankfully, there are many in the trade union movement that have grasped this.

In September 2019, as school student climate protesters took to the streets, the TUC union grouping called for workers to join them with 30 minutes of action.

Some workers walked out to join school students’ protests, while others held meetings.

Even some employers were pushed to allow staff to join in local rallies.

The coming together of the environmental movement with unions did more than just add extra numbers.

It showed that working class people increasingly felt that the changing climate effected them, and their families, as workers.

And it offered the movement the prospect of greater social and economic power.

Too much or not enough?

Talk of humanity being too “energy hungry” finds a ready echo among many in the West.

But the picture is different in the Global South where many people are unable to consume enough electricity.

Nigeria is one of the world’s big oil producers but nearly 80 million people there have no access to electricity. Many villages have no electric lights and there is no way to refrigerate food or vital medicines.

Rural areas that are cut off have no means to charge mobile phones so vital to communication.

And, because the country’s electricity grid is in a poor state, a further 60 million people own diesel generators to provide the basics when “outages” occur.

These generators are a grossly inefficient way to provide electricity and produce an enormous amount of pollution.

It’s a situation echoed all across even the most developed of poorer nations.

Any plan to reshape the world’s energy use must include the building of renewable energy plants and new distribution networks in the Global South.

For many this will mean that they have regular electricity for the first time.

Strategy must address poverty

There are more than 2.5 million “fuel-poor” households in England, some 13 percent of households.

This means being forced to spend a “high proportion” of their household income to keep their home at a reasonable temperature.

In Scotland, around a quarter are affected.

Free market mechanisms to push people to use less power will just mean more misery for the poorest.

Any strategy for reducing energy consumption must address the way poor people are already struggling to pay their bills.

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