Big Impact of Big Fossil
Led by old king coal and petroleum, fossil fuels kick-started the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, essentially the beginning of “civilization” as we know it today, driving stratospheric improvements in quality of life and life expectancy, globally. However, the burning of fossil fu2els has been a double edged sword, one which simultaneously launched an astronomical rise in the levels of greenhouse gases, in our atmosphere, that trap heat, catalyzing climate change and a catastrophic rise in surface temperatures across our planet.
By 2015, various studies highlighted that global temperatures had already risen by up to 1°C above pre-industrial times, a period considered to be the climate baseline, and when temperature record-keeping with thermometers first began. After decades of debate stoked by deniers of climate change reportedly backed by Big fossil, in December 2015, the Paris agreement at COP21 marked a significant breakthrough in the war against climate change –196 parties to UNFCCC adopted a legally binding agreement, to limit global emissions of greenhouse gases, in order to keep the rise in global temperatures “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, at a target of 1.5°C.
Is the Paris Agreement Enough?
Maybe not –according to NASA 2016 is already set to be the warmest year on record, up to 1.2-1.3°C above the climate baseline. Experts also warn that in order to meet COP21 targets, emissions must be reduced to a net of zero by 2050, and a recent paper published in Nature concluded that this would mean that 30% of the world’s known reserves of oil, 50% of gas reserves, and 80% of coal reserves, must all never be burnt.
Big Fossil and Big Conflict of Interest
Fossil fuels and industrial processes are currently responsible for over 65% of global emissions –primarily CO2, which comprises 76% of global emissions of greenhouse gases. Consequently, the implementation of COP21 targets requires tough and immediate action, that should start with a ban of the fossil industry from climate negotiations, in order to avoid the evident conflict of interest.
One of the biggest concerns voiced by environmentalists, is that the fossil industry, a key driver of the climate crisis continues to be deeply engaged in influencing climate policy at national and international level, and even climate treaty negotiations –sponsors of COP21 actually included entities that held ownership interests in oil and gas explorations as well as 46 coal-fired power plants.
At COP17, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association secured carbon credits to fund new coal plants. Meanwhile, COP19 saw the involvement of the World Coal Association which led to the Warsaw Communiqué that promoted “clean coal as a solution to climate change”. But alas, old king coal is still a dirty old soul, and coal is the largest single source of carbon emissions. “Clean coal” is a myth, up there with Leprechauns, fairies and Bigfoot. The most advanced carbon capture and storage technology, which is not even commercially viable, and in its current state, would only enable “6% of the known global reserves of coal, and even less of oil and gas” to be burnt before 2050, if COP21 targets are to be met.
A leaf from the public health playbook against Big Tobacco
Like Big Fossil, Big Tobacco once had a seemingly unbreakable hold over public health policy, and also vigorously funded campaigns to mislead both the public and policy makers despite the fact that science had long since presented irrefutable evidence of its negative impacts on global health, society, economy and the environment. Eventually common sense prevailed –the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was unanimously adopted by the World Health Assembly, and ratified by 179 countries including China. Most importantly, in order to protect the integrity of the tobacco treaty, parties to the FCTC unanimously adopted the now famous Article 5.3 “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these polices from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry”.
WHO also issued guidelines advising governments to “divest all holdings in tobacco companies in order to keep public health interests apart from economic influence”, as a result pension funds in various countries from Norway to New Zealand, exited their investments in tobacco. The private sector has also started following suit. Most recently, the insurer AXA, one of the world’s largest institutional investors, announced plans to divest EUR1.8bn of tobacco investments.
Next steps for climate negotiations
Crucially, the parties to UNFCCC must adopt an Article 5.3 of their own, to reign in Big Fossil and address the issue of conflict of interest. More global political and business leaders must also embrace the climate change campaign to divest investments in Big Fossil, which is supported by UN. Sparking glimmers of hope, the Norwegian parliament recently approved a move by their nation’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, with $900bn under management to divest its coal-linked investments which according to NGOs such as Greenpeace, could be worth $8.7bn. Big Fossil lobbyists argue that such divestments may prove counterproductive, risking a resultant impact of limiting investments by Big Fossil into climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, Climate activists continue to call for more bold action, as the list investors standing up to Big Fossil continues to grow.