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Fossil fuels and vested interests: a society in denial

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Powered by article titled “Fossil fuels and vested interests: a society in denial” was written by Duncan Clark, for The Guardian on Friday 19th April 2013 06.00 UTC

The report released by Lord Stern and thinktank Carbon Tracker paints a picture of society in denial. It shows we’re pumping almost $700bn (£458bn) of hard-earned savings and pensions annually into finding new reserves of fossil fuels, even though it’s clear that almost all of those reserves will have to be written off to provide a decent chance of keeping the planet safe.

The ever-inflating “carbon bubble” is only part of the bigger picture, because most of the world’s fuel – around three-quarters in total and almost all the oil and gas – is owned not by listed companies but by governments. And we don’t need only to stop expanding the world’s fossil fuel reserves; we also need to get used to the idea that we can’t burn most of what we already have.

That is a much trickier problem, because with Carbon Tracker’s detailed analysis and growing awareness of the carbon bubble, investors will surely soon start waking up to the madness of putting capital into expanding fuel reserves. But there’s little self-interest – only planetary interest – in leaving existing fuel assets in the ground.

The need to write off existing reserves shines a revealing light on global climate politics, because when you map out the world’s fossil fuel reserves, a striking correlation emerges between the amount of carbon a country has in the ground and its keenness for – or resistance to – a global climate deal.

Take Britain. Sure, there’s lots wrong with our green policies but nonetheless the UK’s climate laws are world-leading. Why? Partly because we have good campaigners, perhaps. But also perhaps because we have virtually no fossil fuels – and therefore nothing much to lose. According to BP, the UK’s proven economically viable reserves would run out at current production rates in just seven years for oil, four years for gas and 12 years for coal.

Similar is true for Europe as a whole and indeed Africa. So it’s perhaps no surprise that these two continents – along with the low-lying island nations – have pushed hardest for a global climate deal. They collectively own less than a tenth of the carbon. Even if you factor in all the nations involved in the Cartagena Dialogue – a loose-knit body of countries proactively engaging in efforts to push for a global deal – you get to only a fifth of the total.

By contrast, those countries with the biggest fossil fuel reserves – such as the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Canada – tend to be much more recalcitrant when it comes to climate politics. The US has 18% of the total and therefore plenty of assets that might need to be written off if the world agreed to tackle climate change. And it’s surely no coincidence that of all the South American nations it was oil-rich Venezuela that did its best to block the last-minute progress at the 2011 talks in Durban. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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