Christiana Figueres is not a name known to most people, yet she has affected the lives of almost everyone on Earth. A native of Costa Rica, she is a diplomat and climate negotiator who served on the board for the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC) between 2010 and 2016. She was also one of the main architects behind the 2015 Paris Agreement that established a goal of limiting global warming to 1º C.
Figueres has written an article for Al Jazeera entitled, “I thought fossil fuel firms could change. I was wrong.” The subtitle to her article is, “Their unprecedented profits over the past year have shown their unwillingness to adapt. It’s now D-Day for them.”
Here is what Figueres has to say.
More than most members of the climate community, I have for years held space for the oil and gas industry to finally wake up and stand up to its critical responsibility in history. I have done so because I was convinced the global economy could not be decarbonized without their constructive participation and I was therefore willing to support the transformation of their business model. But what the industry is doing with its unprecedented profits over the past 12 months has changed my mind.
Let’s remember what the industry could and should be doing with those trillions of dollars: stepping away from any new oil and gas exploration, investing heavily into renewable energies and accelerating carbon capture and storage technologies to clean up existing fossil fuel use. Also, cutting methane emissions from the entire production line, abating emissions along their value chain and facilitating access to renewable energy for those still without electricity who number in their millions.
Instead, what we see is international oil companies cutting back, slowing down or, at best, painfully maintaining their decarbonization commitments, paying higher dividends to shareholders, buying back more shares and — in some countries — lobbying governments to reverse clean energy policies while paying lip service to change.
On top of that, the industry as a whole is making plans to explore new sources of polluting fossil fuels and, in the United States, intimidating stakeholders who have been moving towards environmental, social and governance responsibility.
Of course, there are some exceptions to these sweeping generalizations, but the trend is clear. What are the leaders of the fossil industry thinking? As we evolve the global economy, we have one way forward: decarbonize quickly enough to avert the worst of climate impacts, especially the impacts upon the most vulnerable.
When asked about their irresponsible decisions, executives often cite some version of the prisoner’s dilemma, showing unwillingness to step out of the pack and lead the way forward in fear of diminishing their gains vis a vis their peers. They occasionally also cite their own version of climate justice, which is that less fossil fuel energy produced would mean more expensive energy, including for the poorest.
What they seem to have forgotten is that we are way beyond strategy games. Let’s get real. We have reached the point where decarbonization will happen with the fossil fuel industry or without them. As a recent Rocky Mountain Institute report points out, renewables are simply a superior technology.
“The energy transition is a shift from a concentrated, expensive, polluting commodity-based system with no learning curve, to an efficient, manufactured, technology-driven system that offers continuously falling costs and is available everywhere,” the report argues. “It is moving from heavy, fiery molecules to light, obedient electrons; from hunting fossil fuels to farming the sun.”
According to the International Energy Agency, the world will add a record 440 GW of new renewable capacity this year. That is more than double what we added in 2019, double what the IEA predicted in 2020, and 24 percent more than the IEA foresaw just six months ago. Exponential growth of renewables is the new reality. Today, for every $1 invested in fossil fuels, $1.7 is going to clean energy. This year, the world will invest more than $1.7 trillion into clean energy.
Despite growth in energy generation worldwide, greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector will fall for the first time this year. That is in part due to demand for fossil fuel energy already having peaked, and renewables eating into the energy market share. This year, for the first time, solar will attract more capital than oil production.
At the same time, consumers are benefiting from enormous savings. In the European Union alone, newly installed wind and solar saved consumers 100 billion euros between 2021 and 2023, and it has helped keep the price of wholesale electricity prices down. The fossil fuel industry is facing decline, no matter what. It is D-Day for them.
The powerful state owned companies as well as international firms have to decide whether they transition to the energies of the 21st century and thereby accelerate the exponential curve of the energy transition, or if their flame dies out while they remain blind and in pernicious resistance.
Do they want to gain some public license (if any is left for them) by speeding the winds of change or do they want to be the last men standing? If they choose the latter, the transition to clean energies will occur despite them, but it will likely be too late for humanity. The fossil fuel industry will have powered human development in the 20th century and then destroyed it in the 21st (emphasis added). Their moment to decide is now.
Christiana Figueres Et Al. Vs Fossil Fuels
Christiana Figueres knows what she is talking about. She is plugged into the climate conversation at the highest levels around the world. But she is not a voice crying alone in the wilderness. A few years ago, the fossil fuel companies were tripping all over themselves to convince the public they were serious about lowering their emissions to address global heating.
But that is just eyewash, window dressing for gullible members of the public and politicians. Dan Cohn, global energy transition researcher at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Guardian recently the oil industry’s climate plans should not be taken at “face value. They have left no doubt that their pledges were deployed for cynical political purposes, only to be ditched when they no longer suited the industry’s strategic position.”
That strategic position was to avoid being governed, said Timmons Roberts, professor of environment and sociology at Brown University, who claimed those soothing words from the oil companies were just part of a strategy to avoid a tightening of government regulations.
“The climate commitments were almost certainly made to give the impression that they don’t need to be regulated because their voluntary pledges are adequate,” he said. Such climate pledges became popular while fossil fuels were becoming less profitable years ago, but since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gas prices have risen. In fact, fossil fuel companies saw record profits last year. “It became clear that they are motivated by profits,” said Roberts.
He added that to foster a real energy transition, political leaders must stop believing that energy companies will voluntarily change their business models. Of course, many of those leaders got where they are thanks to financial support from the oil industry.
“The fossil fuel industry has massively profited from selling a dangerous product and now innocent people and governments across the globe are paying the price for their recklessness,” Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University who studies the oil industry, told The Guardian.
Together with Eric Conway, she is the author of a new book entitled The Big Myth. No matter what strategy they employ at any given time, the industry has “done everything they can to block climate action and keep us dependent on their products,” Oreskes said.
Evidence of the attitude of the oil industry can be found in the words of Darren Woods, the CEO of ExxonMobil, who told an industry conference last month that his company plans to double the amount of oil produced from its US shale holdings within the next five years.
Such brazen talk simply highlights how tone deaf the leaders of these companies are and how a broken economic model that rewards companies for polluting the environment makes their blatant lies possible.
Every penny in profit this companies make should be taken from them and used to pay for clean energy systems and to compensate the millions of people whose homes and lives are threatened by extreme heat, drought, forest fires, and rising seas caused by their business activities.
25 Billion Atomic Bombs
The enormity of their climate crimes is driven home by a recent study by the University of New South Wales that found the fossil fuel industry has dumped two trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and added heat equivalent to 25 billion atomic bombs like the one dropped on Nagasaki in the past 50 years. And the industry has paid not one penny to remediate its abuse of the Earth.
If fossil fuels and climate justice were analyzed together, they would be on opposite ends of the spectrum. What the world needs and Christiana Figureres advocates for is an economic model that rewards climate justice more than environmental destruction. Why do we allow these companies to get away with their climate crimes? It is long past time for a day of reckoning that removes the scourge of fossil fuels from the face of the Earth.
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