It is well established that the oil companies knew for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would result in a hotter planet. They knew it and yet did all they could to keep the public disinformed. Like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel companies spent big time on public relations efforts, political consultants, hot-wired lobbyists, campaign contributions and funded fake groups to advocate against the science that they knew to be true.
And they succeeded. Despite the mounting evidence that the burning of oil, coal and gas was accelerating the world’s pace toward a climate catastrophe, nothing of consequence was achieved. The industry’s political muscle, its front groups and fake experts were in 2016 joined by a compliant White House and Congress that reversed what modest steps had been taken.
But facts are facts and the scientific evidence keeps piling up. It is now widely viewed that unless the world takes immediate and aggressive steps to slash greenhouse gas emissions, the growing climate changes that we are all experiencing may reach a point of no return – and result in mass extinctions and the end of civilization as we know it.
Last week, the International Energy Agency added its views. In its net zero roadmap report, the IEA found that to keep the world from catastrophic overheating, a new clean energy revolution must take place. The IEA concluded that the world’s consumption of oil must drop by one-quarter by the end of this decade. And then be down to one quarter of the total consumed today by the year 2050.
The IEA concluded that starting now, the world cannot allow new fossil fuel projects: no more new oil fields, no new gas extraction, no new coal mines.
Public investors funding new fossil fuel projects should back out now. Consumers will have to change too – the IEA found that half of greenhouse gas emissions will require “consumer choices,” like buying electric cars and driving slower (the IEA called for a ban on the sale of gas-powered cars by the year 2035); installing electricity-powered heat pumps and solar panels; traveling more on trains and less on planes; changing heating temperatures. Governments and companies will have to dramatically increase funding for solar, wind, and geothermal projects; the IEA stated that the pace of the installation of solar panels and wind turbines will have to quadruple by the year 2030. Aggressive energy efficiency measures will have to be implemented.
According to the IEA, “Global electricity networks that took over 130 years to build need to more than double in total length by 2040 and increase by another 25% by 2050.”
The IEA concluded that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius remains technically and economically feasible, but there is little margin for error or delay. “Making net-zero emissions a reality,” the report concluded, “hinges on a singular, unwavering focus from all governments – working together with one another, and with businesses, investors and citizens.”
In a nation that cannot agree on the value of vaccines in a pandemic, meeting the IEA’s recommendations is a tall order. Even today – despite the overwhelming scientific consensus – the oil industry and its media and political toadies are attacking the Biden Administration’s efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels.
Like it was for the tobacco industry, the oil, coal, and gas companies are using their deep pockets to fight science to the bitter end. Unlike tobacco, however, the world needs energy to eat, travel and flourish. Thus, the world must quickly move into a new non-fossil-fuel-powered future, and the oil, coal, and gas companies need to develop plans to “wind down” their activities as their products are too dangerous to keep using.
The IEA identified the immediate steps – ban the expansion of the plans to drill for more oil and gas, invest in renewables, and move efficiency measures up to scale. In addition, the world needs to make plans to gradually shutter the oil, coal, and gas companies – at least as far as their reliance on the exploitation of fossil fuels as their core business. In addition, that “wind down” measures should include requiring the industries to pay their fair share of the necessary investments and clean up needed to close down that industry.
As the IEA plainly stated, success “hinges on a singular, unwavering focus.” All levels of government must start actions now, before it is too late.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.