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Greening Up: Are Fossil Fuels Doomed?

The evidence is mounting in the courtroom of public judgment; a verdict could be delivered soon.

“Just, (screw) the whole fossil fuel industry. They need to be nationalized as we transition completely from fossil fuels to preserve what is left of a livable planet.” Peter Kalmus

The evidence is mounting in the courtroom of public judgment; a verdict could be delivered soon.

Fossil fuels stand accused of death, destruction, deception, denial, and dishonesty.

They are dirty and disagreeable, but they became deities that we worshipped for decades.

They divide our nation – for some of us (especially Albertans) they are angelic, others (especially climatologists) regard them as demons.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming.

Fossil fuels finance tremendous wealth for the few, a dependable provider of dividends. Just 100 fossil fuel producing companies and their investors have been the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

Last year, Oxfam issued a reportconfirming that the richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity.

For the many, fossil fuels are a source of distress. Their combustion by-products are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future. Psychologists say climate change has consequences such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although fossil fuels currently supply about 80 percent of the world’s energy, we humans are now facing a dilemma – can we dismiss and dump fossil fuels?

“Fire made us human, fossil fuels made us modern, but now we need a new fire that makes us safe, secure, healthy and durable.” – Amory Lovins

Let’s look at the evidence as presented by the prosecutors.

Charge Number One: Death. This is the newest charge levied against fossil fuels.

In news that broke on February 8th and generally flew under the radar of the popular press, a research team of U.S. and U.K. scientists revealed that fossil fuels are alone responsible for more than 8 million premature deathsannually.

In a sane world this would have been front page news.

Fossil fuel combustion emits fine particulate matter (commonly called PM2.5) that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, about 3 percent the diameter of a human hair.

The scientists estimated that in 2012 there were 10.2 million global excess deaths due to the PM 2.5 emissions from fossil fuels. They chose 2012 because there was no El Niñoto skew the results.

But since 2012, China has greatly reduced its emissions, so by 2018 the global death toll was just 8.7 million.

These particles are the microscopic stuff that slip past the respiratory system’s defenses and are the cause of acute, short-term impacts that aggravate asthma, heart disease, and COPD sufferers.

Writer Crawford Kilian says the study shows that about 36,000 Canadians over age 14 die annually from PM2.5 pollution.

“That’s roughly the population of Campbell River or Port Moody, dying every year,” he writes in a The Tyee article. “COVID-19 has so far killed about 21,000 of us in its first year. In the First World War, about 61,000 Canadians died; we kill another 61,000 every 20 months, just by burning fossil fuels.”

“What's the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we're willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?” – Elizabeth Kolbert

The Anthropocene – the geological age of human influence – is also resulting in unprecedented biodiversity loss and species loss.

A recent CBS Climate Watch program about the Great Dying drew parallels to what is happening on the planet today.

That mass extinction 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian Period was mostly caused by too much carbon dioxide rising into the atmosphere. During the Great Dying 90 percent of life in the oceans and 70 percent of life on land vanished. 

The authors of the CBS report detailed how our planet is in the midst of extraordinary change again:

“Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing at a pace 100 times faster than it naturally should. Our planet is warming 10 times faster than it has in 65 million years. Our oceans are acidifying 100 times fasterthan they have in at least 20 million years, and oxygen dead zones in our oceans have increased tenfold since 1950.”

“I think that the world is in the middle of a huge transition that we have to make to renewable energy. We have to transition away from fossil fuels very, very quickly.” – Josh Fox

Rebecca K. Saari is an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at the University of Waterloo.

She has co-authored a number of studies that evaluate the co-benefits for air quality of climate change policymaking.

“The air quality scientific community has hypothesized this for at least a decade, but research advances have let us quantify and confirm this notion, over and over,” says Saari. “The air quality ‘co-benefits’ are generally so valuable that they exceed the cost of climate action, often many times over.”

As Dave Roberts wrote in a 2020 Vox article, ditching fossil fuels would pay for itself through clean air alone. And the air quality benefits would arrive sooner than the climate benefits – thereby saving lives.

A 2019 scientific study concluded by stating: “The mutual goals of clean air and a stable climate under the WHO guidelines and the Paris Agreement require a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels.”

“If aliens did visit us, I’d be embarrassed to tell them we still dig fossil fuels from the ground as a source of energy.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Charge Number Two: Destruction. The impacts of fossil fuel extraction fall into three main categories: the direct impact of extraction activity, indirect impacts of infrastructure development and expanded human activity, and the consequences of extraction disasters. Road building is in fact the main catalyst for irreversible ecosystem change.

In northern South America, for instance, large oil and gas projects in the Western Amazon have caused major environmental and social impacts, including deforestation for construction of roads, drilling platforms and pipelines, contamination from oil spills and waste-water discharge. Each kilometre of road constructed means 4 to 24 km2 of deforestation for colonization and related agricultural development.

This is happening in one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

“It’s not that we have a philosophical difference with the fossil fuel industry – it’s that their business model is destroying the planet.” – Bill McKibben

Even the extraction of fossil fuels is heating the planet. Between 2007 and 2017, 45.5 billion tonnes of oil and 36.3 billion cubic metres of natural gas were removed from the Earth’s crust. When oil and gas is extracted, the voids fill with water, which is a less effective insulator. This means more heat from the Earth’s interior can be conducted to the surface, causing the land and the ocean to warm.

Global material resource use between 1970 and 2017 more than tripled, reaching about 90 billion tonnes with high-income countries consuming ten times more per person than low-income countries.

As Darrin Qualman explains in his book Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature, and the Future, this is as a result of the 2 to 3 percent annual economic growth rate desired by our political leaders. Qualman then makes clear that a 2.5 percent compound annual growth rate results in a doubling in only 28 years.

The economic and health costs of air pollution from burning fossil fuels totaled $2.9 trillion in 2018, calculated in the form of work absences, years of life lost, and premature deaths, according to a report by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The cost represents 3.3 percent of global GDP, or about $8 billion per day.

“It seems to me like Mother Nature's mercy and forgiveness have run dry, as we ceaselessly abuse her and take her for granted in order for us to continue our addiction to using fossil fuels. I've gotta say, I don't blame her. Not one bit.” – Gloria Reuben

A century of temperature and precipitation data, as well as decades of satellite data on hurricanes and sea level rise, leave no doubt that Earth’s warming surface temperature is intensifying the impact of extreme weather events.

The world’s 10 costliest weather disasters in 2020 resulted in insured damages worth $150 billion, claimed at least 3,500 lives and displaced more than 13.5 million people.

Severe weather events in 2020 cost Canadian insurance companies $2.4 billion, the fourth most expensive year for disaster insurers since 1983.

Among other negative environmental effects of fossil fuels include oil spills; compounds that deplete the ozone layer resulting in more skin cancer; sulphur and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain; frackingfor natural gas that releases methane; mountain-top mining for coalcausing top soil and forest removal and polluted streams; the emission of 2.23 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the 1.42 billion vehicles on the road in 2018; and ocean acidification that is bleaching coral reefs and changing ocean chemistry.

“In a sense, the fossil fuels are a onetime gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources.” – Kenneth Deffeyes

Research published on March 3rd found global fossil CO2 emissions decreased by about 7 percent in 2020 – falling around 2.6 GtCO2 to 34 GtCO2 – caused largely by the measures implemented to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study focussed on fossil CO2 emission which is the largest contributor to the rise in anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

The paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, stated “A 2.6 GtCO2 decrease in global annual emissions has never been observed before. Yet cuts of 1–2 GtCO2 per year are needed throughout the 2020s and beyond to avoid exceeding warming levels in the range 1.5 °C to well below 2 °C, the ambition of the Paris Agreement.”

Corinne Le Quéré, lead author of the study, told The Guardian “We need a cut in emissions of about the size of the fall [from the lockdowns] every two years, but by completely different methods.”

Le Quéré is a French-Canadian scientist currently Professor of Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of East Anglia in Britain. She is a former director of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

“We have failed to understand in the past that we can’t have tackling climate change as a side issue. It can’t be about one law or policy, it has to be put at the heart of all policy,” she said. “Every strategy and every plan from every government must be consistent with tackling climate change.”

“There is a reason it is called fossil fuel – it is an outdated method of getting power.” – Alexandra Paul

Charge Number Three: Deception, Denial and Dishonesty. This is the most morally reprehensible charge against the fossil fuel industry because it knew the consequences of fossil fuel combustion, its role in creating greenhouses gases, and its effect on people and the planet.

Yet for decades the industry kept its research findings secret and instead engaged in a cover-up of distortion, denial, deception and dishonesty.

The truth was exposed by Inside Climate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that provides essential reporting and analysis on climate change, energy and the environment, for the public and for decision makers.

During an eight-month investigation, ICN”s reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986.

Exxon had assembled a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate’s sensitivity to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the air. It was a company concerned about risks to its bottom line and wanted to know how long it had before CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere could force a transition away from fossil fuels.

“Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” – James Black, 1978

Senior company scientist James F. Black delivered a blunt message to Exxon’s Management Committee in July 1977.

“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” he told his audience.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. 

New documents emerged in 2018 that Shell scientists had predicted in the late 1980s that carbon dioxide levels could double as early as 2030. Shell’s experts said, “The changes may be the greatest in recorded history.”

“What we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return.” – Barack Obama

In the 1970s, Exxon was not only the world’s biggest oil company; it was the most profitable company in the world.

The lure of the most lucrative substance yet found on Earth bound Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco and others to form the Global Climate Coalition. They hired veterans who had defended the tobacco industry in earlier fights and even hired the company that had spearheaded the attack against Rachel Carson.

Thus began a three-decade long disinformation campaign that an Exxon public affairs manager said would “emphasize the uncertainty” about climate change. The fossil fuel companies put millions of dollars into a drive to create confusion in the public mind.

Unfortunately, it worked.

The oil companies committed treason against an entire planet and have so far gotten away with it.

In December 2019, a judge ruled in Exxon’s favour against a charge by the New York attorney general that the company had committed fraud by misinforming investors about climate change.

Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healy sued ExxonMobil on October 24, 2019 for deceptive advertising to Massachusetts consumers and for misleading Massachusetts investors about the risks to Exxon’s business posed by fossil fuel-driven climate change.

That case is still before the court.

“We are going to exit the fossil fuel era. It is inevitable.” – Elon Musk

Summation by the prosecution: There are still a few voices promoting an all-energy-sources-on-deck approach but most have a vested interest in continuing the status quo.

Stanford climate and energy scientist Mark Z. Jacobsonhas demonstrated since a 2009 Scientific American article that it is technically and economically feasible and economically beneficial for 139 countries to meet all of their energy needs using only power from clean, renewable resources.

The energy roadmaps he has created for those countries show that a rapid energy transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy would create more than 24 million net new jobs by 2050.

Jacobson created Canada’s roadmap in 2019. He envisioned a $700 billion plan that would reduce end-use energy requirements by 62.5 percent, reduce private energy costs by 68 percent, and reduce health, climate and social costs to the point that the plan would eventually pay for itself.

A September 2018 reportby the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found bold climate action could deliver at least US$26 trillion in economic benefits through to 2030, compared with business-as-usual.

The report stated over 65 million new low-carbon jobs could be generated by 2030 and 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution could be avoided.

Through just subsidy reform and carbon pricing, an estimated US$2.8 trillion in government revenues could be generated per year in 2030, funds that can be invested in other public priorities or reduce distorting taxes. 

“Fossil fuel subsidies send out a terrible signal: burn more carbon. We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now.” – Jim Yong Kim

While the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Keystone XLare being cancelled, others like the Trans Mountain Expansion and the Coastal GasLink are experiencing costly expenditure  increases.

At the same time, the cost of renewable energy keeps falling, especially solar and wind which are now considered the cheapest sources of power in most of the world.

And Purdue University Professor Maureen McCannsays plant power can also be part of the renewable energy equation.

“In my mind, building a sustainable economy means we stop digging carbon out of ground and begin to make use of one and a half billion tons of biomass available in the U.S. on an annual basis,” she says. “That's the strategic carbon reserve that we need to exploit in order to displace oil.”

“What has become clear from the science is that we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without creating a very different planet.” – James Hansen

We must realize there are environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate. Exploitation of Earth’s resources that destroy ecosystems and the livelihoods of people must cease. We must live in balance with the natural environment.

Scientists warned us in 2013 when the now-disbanded Australian Climate Commission issued a report stating buried fossil fuel reserves should be left untouched. Peer-reviewed evidence backing up that claim was published in 2015.

A co-author of the Australian report was Professor Lesley Hughes of Macquarie University in Sydney.

According to Hughes the math is simple: “In order to achieve that goal of stabilising the climate at 2 degrees or less, we simply have to leave about 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” she argues. “We cannot afford to burn them and still have a stable and safe climate.”

Based on the evidence presented, our divorce from fossil fuels seems inevitable.

A climate-friendly future depends on retrofitting buildings, expanding public transit, transforming electrical grids, changing our consumption and eating patterns, not on extracting more oil, gas or coal out of the Earth. 

We are the jurors who will decide the fate of fossil fuels. It is becoming harder and harder to defend them. We have lost too much time and too many lives.

Let’s render our decision and end the trial so the industry can determine its exit strategy.

“We are living in revolutionary times. The good news is we have everything we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. All we need is for you to join the rest of the world to bring about a cleaner, more stable, and peaceful future.” – Mark Ruffalo

Michael Jessen, a former journalist, restaurant owner, consultant, and recycling coordinator, currently lives and writes at Longbeach on Nelson’s North Shore. He can be reached at zerowaste@shaw.ca