Although it doesn’t feel so long ago, it has been almost two years since I wrote about the mounting risk of investing in fossil fuels; in short, great portions of the reserves we are currently spending billions per year to discover and explore will have to remain unburnt if we are to avoid more than 2°C of global temperature rise, leaving eye-wateringly valuable assets stranded under the ground and potentially creating a global financial crash far more serious than the one from which we are just starting to emerge.
As alarming a prospect as this is, it received relatively little attention until the recent publication of a study by University College London that states not only will new reserves need to remain untapped, but that of the resources we are already aware, 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil must remain unused and underground. With those figures in view, suddenly people are paying attention.
If the world is to take the threat of temperature rise seriously, strictly mandated limits on fossil fuel production will have to be implemented in the near future. Of course, reserves are not equally distributed around the world and these caps will certainly hit some locations much harder than others. Looking at where the majority of the remaining known resources are located, what strikes me about the UCL report is that those countries facing the biggest slashes to traditional fuel production are also those whose economies rely most heavily on its continued exploitation.
Take Russia and the Middle East for example; they face their own natural environmental challenges, with Russia’s plunging cold and the arid desert expanses of the Middle East acting as hostile barriers to thriving economies, yet both have managed to create vast sums of domestic wealth. How? Directly through the exploitation of natural fuel reserves. Unfortunately the University’s report would see this industry decimated, suggesting that the Middle East must abandon 40% of its oil and 60% of its gas, and that the majority of Russian coal must also remain unmined. Is it even remotely realistic to expect that these nations will halt production when it is the only abundant resource they have with which to maintain their economies? It seems especially optimistic given the current over-production of oil in Saudi Arabia, with which they are hoping to bankrupt Russia and thereby gain a monopoly hold over the market; fossil fuels are being used as global strategic weapons, and it is unlikely that anyone will lay down their arms in the hope of some greater good.
Even more ethically challenging is the issue surrounding the countries, indeed, continents, that have historically lacked the financial resources to even begin to utilise their reserves to support economies and develop infrastructure. For example, The UCL report claims that Africa must leave 80% of its known coal in the ground, but this same coal could provide a much-needed source of income that other nations, the UK included, have lent upon for decades to secure a higher quality of life for their inhabitants. Is it fair to deny them the financial support that fossil fuel production brings simply because richer countries got there first, especially when those countries drive the vast majority of fossil fuel consumption in the first place? Britain built its empire on coal during the industrial revolution, and it seems wrong to now deny Africa the chance to escape poverty using the same channels.
It is clear that the world is headed for an important gear change: soon there will be no option but to move away from our carbon-based present towards a future based on cleaner energy. Less clear is what the journey between the two points looks like. It may be laughably idealistic, but the most ethical route is surely one that demands countries with the ability to do so to move towards renewables with immediate effect, sourcing any requirement they have for coal, oil, or gas from financially poor but resource rich countries. These areas would then be in a position to build their infrastructure just as we have used fossil fuels to build ours, and to use the resource as a springboard until such a time as they were able to diversify away towards a low carbon economy.
Wishful thinking? Almost certainly. In truth, hopes of a global consensus on this issue are unlikely ever to be realised, and it will become more a question of exploiting resources in the safest way through carbon capture and storage technology. One thing is for sure: any plan based on restricting access to cheap fuel is doomed to fail from the start, so we have no other choice but to address the problem and create long-term, sustainable solutions.