For the last three decades, there has been an increasing recognition of the extremely damaging and deleterious effect on the earth’s climate and environment of the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), such as carbon dioxide, from anthropogenic activity that poses a severe threat to the long-term survival of the human species. While discussions of this phenomenon used to be carried out a few decades earlier mostly in scientific journals, the words global warming are now ubiquitous in the popular media and the word “green” is now attached to all kinds of technology or activity as an attribute of environmental virtue. Every year or two, under the auspices of the United Nations, there is a COP (Conference of Parties) meeting of the world’s countries whose leaders make promises to cut the production and consumption of fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal, whose combustion in power plants, industry, transport, buildings, homes, etc., is responsible for the production of GHGs, mostly carbon dioxide. However, data shows that most of these promises have turned out to be rhetorical “hot air” as the production of greenhouse gases still keeps rising. Since 2014 approximately 330 billion tons more of CO2 has been dumped into the global atmosphere causing a rise of over 5% in GHG emissions.
The US Administration recently gave approval to the Willow Project, a mega scale oil extraction project in a pristine wilderness area of Alaska at the edge of the Arctic Circle, that is expected to produce at its peak 180,000 barrels of oil per day. The production and use of this quantity of petroleum will add over 9 million metric tons each year of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere for approximately the next 30 years. This will happen at a time when the world is expected to halve its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the year 2030 to prevent global temperature rising beyond 1.5 degrees C according to the recently released sixth assessment report AR6 of the IPCC (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the United Nations mandated authoritative scientific body on climate change. AR6 has made clear the grave consequences of the worldwide rise in GHG emissions and the possibility of irreversible changes to the earth’s climate leading to large parts of the world becoming uninhabitable should we fail to change course.
The Willow project is owned by the oil major ConocoPhillips that obtained lease rights for the area located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) back in the late 1990s. While environmental groups have criticized the US administration for approving the project and have threatened to sue it in court, legal analysts have pointed out that the government had few options given that ConocoPhillips held the lease rights to a portion of the NPR-A reserves, and the government would have lost in court if they had tried to block the project and had been sued.
Moreover, while Willow is a major oil development project, it needs to be pointed out that it is just one of many hundreds of new oil and gas extraction projects that were approved just last year of which many are in the US itself. Indeed, if the fracking of shale rock to extract natural gas that is occurring in the US is included, the US could be the world’s leading oil and gas producer compared with other major oil and gas producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Norway. In fact, an analysis of new oil and gas projects approved in just 2022 and 2023 in 30 countries reported in the New York Times (NYT) newspaper of April 6, 2023 shows that several tens of billions of barrels of oil equivalent will be produced over the lifetime of these projects, typically 30 years, over and above the current production of oil and gas that is already too high and needs to be substantially reduced to meet climate goals.
In the last year, as the covid pandemic waned, oil company production and profits have literally soared to astronomical levels with the major oil companies, BP, Shell, Exxon, etc., raking in record profits of tens of billions of dollars. This bonanza is expected to continue for some years based on the planned projects that have either been approved or are in the approval chain. As the NYT report quoted above reveals:
“Amid the record profits fossil fuel companies made last year, some also extended timelines for production further into the future, in essence reneging on pledges to transition their businesses, however slowly, toward renewable energy. BP recently revised its plan to cut production by 40 percent by 2030, setting a new target of 25 percent. The company’s stock price surged on the news.”
Along with oil and gas, the other, dirtier, fossil fuel, coal, still appears to have plenty of life left. Both China and India are expanding coal production and implementing thermal power projects based on coal combustion. For example, despite the extensive lip service paid to renewables by the Indian government, India opened up significant areas of virgin forest in the state of Chhattisgarh in central India to bids by private investors to extract coal via strip mining, the most environmentally destructive form of coal extraction, that will destroy many thousands of acres of old growth trees. It is no surprise that the Modi government’s favorite company Adani Group, whose name has become an international byword for financial corruption, won most of the bids as reported in an article in Scroll of April 4 by Arunabh Saikia and Supriya Sharma: “The Adani Group emerged as one of the largest winners in commercial coal auctions held by the government in March, picking up four coal blocks at among the lowest prices.” The same article indicated “The Modi government greenlighted the clearance of about 3,000 acres of forest land in Chhattisgarh for the expansion of a coal mine operated by the Adani Group, even though a government-funded study found that coal extraction was not as per the mining plan.” Despite these irregularities and shenanigans, Adani remains a major player in the thermal coal power sector from his ownership of Australia’s largest and most controversial coal mine and his project to supply Bangladesh power from a plant in Jharkhand that will burn coal imported from the Australian mine.
These plans and projects to continue or enhance fossil fuel production need to be analyzed in the context of the predictions of the IPCC AR6 report as well as the commitments made by different countries to reduce GHG emissions at various recent COP conferences. AR6 indicates clearly that that even the current rise in global temperature of 1.1 degrees C is causing changes in the climate system in every region of the world including more frequent extreme weather events, and the rise of sea levels along with rapidly disappearing sea ice. The IPCC scientists unambiguously state that by 2025, at the very latest, world GHG emissions need to peak, then decline by 43% by the year 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050 if global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels is to be limited to 1.5 degrees C. The environmental scientist Prof Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester in the UK, has recently argued (The Conversation, March 24, 2023), that the conclusions of the AR6 report of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.50 C are too optimistic since their projections of GHG emissions were based on data from 2020 as the base year. Anderson calculates that if the 2020 emissions are updated to 2023, then to keep the 1.50C limit of global temperature rise implies that net zero emissions have to arrive a decade earlier by 2040 and comments that “Given it will take a few years to organize the necessary political structures and technical deployment, the date for eliminating all CO? emissions to remain within 1.5°C of warming comes closer still, to around the mid-2030s. This is a strikingly different level of urgency to that evoked by the IPCC’s “early 2050s.”
The likelihood of any of this happening can be gauged from the fact that by 2019 emissions had increased by 12% from their 2010 levels and although there was a fortuitous dip in 2020 caused by the covid pandemic, emissions have continued to grow ever since. It appears more likely that a rise in global temperature by 2 to 3 degrees C will occur which could lead to irreversible changes in the environment from climate impacts, such as sea level increases that may doom many island and coastal area communities, and temperature levels that could render many areas in the world uninhabitable. South Asia, in particular, is on the cusp of being one of the world’s most vulnerable regions including areas of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka which are likely to be among the worst affected. There is considerable irony in the fact that many countries in Asia and Africa that have contributed the least to global warming will suffer the most from its consequences, another feature of the profound inequity of the global economic and political system.
The US Administration under President Biden has committed hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change through policies such as speeding up the transition of the US transportation sector to electric vehicles, curbing leaks of methane (a much more potent greenhouse gas compared to CO2) from oil and gas wells and providing numerous incentives for renewable energy production. Very recently, press reports claimed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will announce limits on GHG emissions from the 3400 coal and natural gas power plants in the US that provide about 60% of the nation’s electricity and account for 25% of the US GHG emissions. Almost all of the fossil fuel-based power plants will be required to cut or capture their CO2 emissions to achieve net zero carbon emissions by around 2040 if the press reports are accurate. While this is the first time that the federal government will require power plants to limit their GHG emissions, it is certain that this regulation will face severe opposition in the US Congress as well as an uncertain future in the court system. Moreover, the carbon capture technology that limits emission of CO2 is itself highly experimental and is currently used by a mere handful, around 20, of the thousands of power plants currently in operation. There is still considerable uncertainty about the price of carbon credits and the concurrent improvements in carbon sequestration technology that will be needed to achieve the goals reported in the media.
If a comparison is made, even just within the US, between the Administration’s climate change plans with those of the oil and gas companies supported by the major banks to significantly increase production in the next few years, especially considering the huge increase in US LNG exports to Europe that are replacing Russian gas embargoed by many countries in Western Europe following the war in Ukraine, the words of a long-time climate activist stand out. Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit media lab devoted to end the use of fossil fuel comments: “This is the crux of the climate problem…The Biden Administration is taking some bold action –but they only want to tackle the demand for fossil fuels, not the supply. That’s like trying to cut a piece of paper with only one side of the scissors.”
Jamie Henn raises a very basic point here why it’s difficult, if not impossible, for the political, economic, and legal system of the US to curb and stop the investment of billions of dollars in the Willow or similar oil and gas projects that will produce many gigatons of carbon dioxide and other GHGs over the next decades, which could well drown many portions of the earth’s surface and also render large land areas uninhabitable. It would appear that it is the fundamental system of property relations, also known as the global capitalist system, that renders illegal the “taking” of private property, in other words stopping some of the largest companies in the world from continuing to carry on an activity they have been doing for well over 150 years. In principle, the US political and legal system could restrict or ban the production of fossil fuels as hazardous to human health on grounds somewhat similar to what were used for curbing tobacco smoking. However, given that tobacco products are still legal, though restricted, and it took perhaps four decades to achieve those restrictions, the chance of doing something similar for fossil fuels in the next decade or so appear to be somewhat less than those of a snowflake in hell.
Based on the scenarios already sketched in the IPCC’s AR6 report and updated by Prof. Kevin Anderson, the next decade or two will be extremely difficult if not an ongoing catastrophe for many people in the tropical areas of the planet that account for a large majority of the world’s population. Some of this is probably unavoidable but is emphasizes the urgent need to prepare plans to prevent the worst scenarios from occurring in areas that have the least resources to overcome climate impacts.
The magazine Monthly Review’s April 2023 issue is devoted to climate change and one paragraph in its Review of the Month lead article points to the outline of a way forward in the advanced capitalist countries that is worth quoting at length:
“It is likely that the struggle, at least in the capitalist core, will have two phases, the first of which will be ecodemocratic, aimed at a kind of ecological popular front directed at the fossil fuel companies and financial capital, but pointing in an ecosocialist direction since going against the logic of capitalism; the second of which will take a form in which ecosocialism is dominant if there is to be any hope at all. What is certain is that we have to abandon capital accumulation as the driver of society. As the leaked 2022 IPCC climate mitigation report agreed to by scientists clearly indicated—prior to the censorship of this report by governments in the published version—what is required at this point is the adoption of new, low-energy solutions, necessitating vast changes in the structure of social relations.”