“Getting to zero” is a lousy goal

Also published on Resilience

In an alternate reality, gradually moving toward a zero-carbon-emission economy and arriving there in two or three decades would be a laudable accomplishment.

In an alternate reality –   for example, the reality that might result from turning the clock back to 1975 – a twenty-five year process of eliminating all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions could avert a climate crisis.

But in our reality in 2022, with far too much carbon dioxide already flowing through the atmosphere and the climate crisis worsening every year, knowingly emitting more greenhouse gases for another two decades is a shockingly cavalier dance with destruction.

This understanding of the climate crisis guides the work of Bruce King and Chris Magwood. Their own field of construction, they write, can, and indeed must, become a net storer of carbon – and not by 2050 by rather by the early 2030’s.

Their new book Build Beyond Zero (Island Press, June 2022) puts the focus on so-called “embodied emissions”, also known more clearly as “upfront emissions”. The construction industry accounts for up to 15 percent of global warming emissions, and most of the emissions occur during manufacturing of building materials.

No matter how parsimonious new buildings might be with energy during their operating lifetimes, an upfront burst of carbon emissions has global warming impact when we can least afford it: right away. “A ton of emissions released today,” write King and Magwood, “has far more climate impact than a ton of emissions released a decade from now.”

Emissions released today, they emphasize, push us immediately closer to climate crisis tipping points, and emissions released today will continue to heat the globe throughout the life of a building.

Their goal, then, is to push the construction industry as a whole to grapple with the crucial issue of upfront emissions. The construction industry can, they believe, rapidly transform into a very significant net sequesterer of carbon emissions.

 That goal is expressed in their “15 x 50” graph.

By 2050, Bruce King and Chris Magwood say, the construction industry can and should sequester a net 15 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Graphic from Build Beyond Zero, Island Press, 2022, page 238.

A wide range of building materials are now or can become net storers of carbon – and those that can’t must be rapidly phased out of production or minimized.

The bulk of Build Beyond Zero consists of careful examination of major categories of building materials, plus consideration of different stages including construction, demolition, or disassembly and re-use.

Concrete – by far the largest category of building material by weight and by current emissions –is a major focus of research. King and Magwood outline many methods that are already available to reduce the carbon intensity of concrete production, as well as potential methods that could allow the net storage of carbon within concrete.

Equally important, though, are construction materials that can reduce and in some cases eliminate the use of concrete – for example, adobe and rammed earth walls and floors.

By far the largest share of carbon sequestration in buildings could come from biogenic sources ranging from timber to straw to new materials produced by fungal mycelia or algae.

Harvesting homes

“Tall timber” is a popular buzzphrase for building methods that can sequester carbon within building structures, but King and Magwood are more excited about much smaller plant materials such as wheat straw or rice hulls. Their discussion of the pros and cons of increased use of wood products is enlightening.

“Assessing the degree of carbon storage offered by timber products is not at all straightforward. Far from being the poster child for carbon-storing building, the use of timber in buildings requires a very nuanced understanding of supply chain issues and forest-level carbon stocks in order to be certain we’re not doing harm in the process of trying to do good.” (Build Beyond Zero, page 111)

First, when trees are cut down typically only half of the above-ground biomass makes it into building products; the rest decomposes and otherwise emits its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Second, particularly where a large stand of trees is clear-cut and the ground is exposed to the elements, much of the below-ground stored carbon also returns to the atmosphere. Third, even once a replacement stand of trees has grown up, a monoculture stand seldom stores as much carbon as the original forest did, and the monoculture is also a big loss for biodiversity.

To the extent that we do harvest trees for construction, then, “We need to take responsibility for ensuring that we are growing forests at a rate that far exceeds our removals from them. Notice that we are talking about growing forests and not just planting trees.” (page 115)

This careful nuance is not always evident in their discussion of agricultural residues, in my opinion. The “15 X 50” goal includes the conversion of huge quantities of so-called “residues” – wheat straw, rice hulls, and sunflower stalk pith, to give a few examples – into long-lasting building materials. But what effects would this have on the long-term health of agricultural soils, if most of these so-called residues are routinely removed from the agricultural cycle rather than being returned to the soil? What level of such total-plant harvesting is truly sustainable?

Yet there is obvious appeal in the use of more fast-growing small plants as building material. Straw can sequester about twice as much carbon per hectare per year as forests do, while “the carbon sequestration and storage efficiency of hemp biomass is an order of magnitude higher than that of trees or straw.” (page 99)

There are many existing methods to turn small plants into building materials, ranging from structural supports to insulation to long-lasting, non-toxic finishes. It is reasonable to hope for the creation of many more such building materials, if industry can develop new carbon-emissions-free adhesives to help shape fibers and particles into a myriad of shapes. King and Magwood note that existing industrial practices are likely to act as hurdles in this quest:

“Nature provides plenty of examples and clues for making nontoxic bioadhesives in species such as mussels and spiders. However, the introduction and scaling of these potentially game-changing materials is so far hampered in the same way as bioplastics: by an extremely risk-averse construction industry and by a petrochemical industry keen to keep and expand market share ….” (page 162) 

Straw-bale construction project in Australia, 2012. Photo by Brett and Sue Coulstock, accessed via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

We don’t have 30 more years

Build Beyond Zero is a comprehensive and clear overview of construction practices and their potential climate impact in the near future. It does not, however, provide any “how-to” lessons for would-be builders or renovators to use in their own projects. For that purpose, both King and Magwood have already published extensively in books such as Essential Hempcrete Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; Essential Prefab Straw Bale Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; and Buildings of Earth and Straw: Structural Design for Rammed Earth and Straw Bale Architecture.

In Build Beyond Zero, King and Magwood offer an essential manifesto for anyone involved in commissioning or carrying out construction or renovation, anyone involved in the production of building materials, anyone involved in the establishment or modification of building codes, anyone involved in construction education.

It’s time for everyone involved with construction to become climate-literate, and to realize that upfront carbon emissions from buildings are as important if not more important than operating emissions during the buildings’ lifetimes. It’s time to realize that construction, perhaps more than most industries, has the capability of going beyond zero to become a significant net storer of carbon.

That opportunity represents an urgent task:

“It has taken more than 30 years for energy efficiency to approach a central role in building sector education …. We can’t wait that long to teach people how to make carbon-storing buildings. If we follow the usual path, the climate will be long past repair by the time enough designers and builders have learned how to fix it.” (page 173)

With global greenhouse gases already at catastrophic levels, we have dug ourselves into a deep hole and it’s nowhere near enough to gradually slow down and then stop digging deeper – we also need to fill that hole, ASAP.

As Build Beyond Zero puts it, “‘Getting to zero,” to repeat one more time, is a lousy goal, or anyway incomplete. You make a mess, you clean it up, as my mother would say. You don’t just stop messing, you also start cleaning.”


Photo at top of page: Limestone quarry and cement kiln, Bowmanville Ontario, winter 2016.

Climate liars, Canada branch

Also published on Resilience

“Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week. He decried the “litany of broken climate promises,” adding that “some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.”

As if on cue, the Canadian government stepped in two days later to provide yet another example of moral and economic madness. It fell to Steven Guilbeault, former environmental activist and now Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, to announce federal approval for the $12-billion Bay du Nord deep-water petroleum project.

The plan is for the new offshore platform to go into production in 2028, and to stay in production until about 2058.

No worries, though –  the Canadian government also promised last week to give billions of dollars to oil companies for carbon-capture-and-storage research, and assured us that all new oil and gas projects will become “net-zero emissions” by 2050.

Canada so far has a consistent record in the “litany of broken climate promises” department – it has missed every carbon emissions reduction goal it has set. Few people have faith that the current iteration of the Justin Trudeau government will be much different. To understand that cynicism, it’s worth reviewing Trudeau’s more notable entries in what Guterres called the climate action “file of shame.”

When Justin Trudeau pulled off a come-from-behind victory to become Prime Minister in 2015, he took over from Conservative Stephen Harper, a man widely renowned as a “climate villain”. Part of Trudeau’s appeal was that he promised to restore Canada’s good name at international climate talks, starting in Paris just a month after his election.

In 2015 the mainstream political consensus was still that 2°C represented the “safe” limit of global warming. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C was not widely accepted as an important goal, though many climate scientists as well as the leaders of small island nations were warning that even 1.5°C of warming would cause devastating damage. That being said, the 1.5°C limit did seem within reach to many scientists and activists in 2015, unlike the miracle such a limit would require today, after six more years of climate action stalling.

The Trudeau government surprised the world, therefore, when newly minted Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna went to the Paris talks and announced her government’s support for the 1.5°C warming target. McKenna and Trudeau were praised around the world for injecting new hope into global climate negotiations.

Alas, that was probably the high point of McKenna’s career as Minister.

The Trudeau government swerved through scandal after scandal – Canada’s ethics commissioner twice determined that Trudeau had violated ethics rules – and its track record on meeting climate goals was no better than previous governments’ had been. To cite just one example, in September 2019 CBC fact-checked Trudeau’s campaign claim that “Canada is on track to reduce our emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.” Even in the best-case scenario, CBC found “all the climate-related policies that were on the table as of January this year would get us 63 per cent of the way to the 2030 target.”

By that point Trudeau had established a peculiar formula. In order to appeal to environmentalists without scaring established business interests, his government would enact a small carbon tax while also supporting, both politically and financially, the continuing expansion of Canada’s oil and gas industry. The increased national wealth from this growing fossil fuel output, we were asked to believe, was the key to financing an ambitious transition to clean renewable energy. To reduce carbon emissions in the coming generation, apparently, we had to increase carbon emissions in the present.

The tragic comedy reached a dramatic inflection in the summer of 2019. Activists were calling on governments around the world to demonstrate they were ready to get serious about climate action, by making official declarations that we are in a “climate emergency.” Trudeau let it be known that his government was on board with the idea.

On June 17, 2019, Catherine McKenna introduced a motion in Parliament, it passed, and the government was on record recognizing that the country is in a national climate emergency. (How serious was this emergency? Well, Trudeau and two other party leaders missed the debate and vote because they were on more pressing business – attending a Toronto Raptors victory parade in Toronto.)

And the very next morning the government announced its approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion, designed to triple the flow of bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to a tanker terminal on the BC coast.

Trudeau defended the project with the claim that every dollar the federal government earned from the pipeline would be invested in clean energy projects. (The government had purchased the pipeline a year earlier, and thus had become the proponent of the expansion proposal, because its private sector owner had determined there was no longer a valid business case for the expansion. Since that time, the cost of the expansion has swelled from the May 2018 estimate of $7.4 billion, to $21.4 billion as of March, 2022.)

It must have been a bitter humiliation for Catherine McKenna to be tasked with defending a climate action policy that surpassed the wildest hopes of satirists. At any rate she stepped down as Minister of Environment and Climate Change before the end of 2019, and left politics in 2021.

Somehow, though, Trudeau was able to attract a climate activist with deep credibility to take the key ministerial post in 2021.

Steven Guilbeault was still new to political office, but his career as an environmental activist was strong enough that fossil fuel defenders sounded an alarm when Trudeau appointed him as Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

One legend says that a five-year-old Guilbeault “refused to get down from a tree that he had climbed, in an effort to block a land developer from clearing a wooded area behind his home” (Wikipedia). His action in 2001 was more fully documented: representing Greenpeace International, he and activist Chris Holden climbed 340 meters up Toronto’s CN Tower and unfurled a banner reading “Canada and Bush Climate Killers”.

The appointment of Guilbeault had the potential to awaken a stirring of faint hope in the heart of a jaded observer of Canadian politics. We now have a minister of environment who actually cared enough about the environment to be arrested for his convictions! Could this mean the Trudeau government will turn in a new direction?

Well … no. Not yet, anyway.

Instead Guilbeault is now the front man for yet another expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Assuming the project finds financing and is completed on schedule, Bay du Nord will start adding to the world’s oil production in 2028 – at a time when, if we were at all serious about climate action, we would be well into a drastic reduction, not an increase, in fossil fuel outputs and fossil fuel consumption.

It was painful to consider the rationalization for the project. This increment of 300 million barrels of new oil production, Guilbeault said, was approved “subject to some of the strongest environmental conditions ever, including the historic requirement for an oil and gas project to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”

Does it comfort you to imagine that somewhere near the end of the project’s lifespan, if lots of new technology and processes are invented, the final barrels of oil might be produced without emitting carbon? Even though, as Guilbeault surely knows, the great preponderance of emissions from petroleum happen during combustion by end-users, and not from the extraction process?

Given Guilbeault’s background and his current role as a loyal foot soldier in the government of Justin Trudeau, it must have stung to hear Antonio Guterres’ words last week:

“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”


Photos at top of page: Justin Trudeau, speaking at Carleton University’s 2021 Graduation Celebration, photo via Wikimedia Commons; Catherine McKenna in Vancouver, 2016, photo by Stephen Hui, Pembina Institute, Creative Commons license, via flickr; Steven Guilbeault, au Salon international du livre de Québec 2014, photo by Asclepias, via Wikimedia Commons.

The uncertain prospects for us multicell types

Also posted on Resilience.

You and I and termites have a lot in common. For one thing, we are all dependent on microbes to stay alive (though few microbes depend on us).

A Natural History of the Future, by Rob Dunn, Basic Books, November 2021

Besides, humans and termites, along with every other multi-celled living creature, belong to just one small branch on the evolutionary tree of life. All of us multi-celled types together – be we plants, insects, fish, birds or apes – are barely a rounding error in the catalogue of life, in which the overwhelming majority of varieties of life are bacterial.

These perspective-correcting points loom large in Rob Dunn’s A Natural History of the Future (Basic Books). If it were merely a compendium of curiosities the book would still make a really good read, given Dunn’s ability to highlight recent work by dozens of other researchers combined with his gift for clear exposition. But in his discussion of key laws of ecology Dunn has a practical purpose in mind: he wants to give us a better chance at surviving this new age of instability which we call the anthropocene.

In spite of all our clever technologies, he argues, human life is and always will be limited by basic principals of ecology. These laws of ecology are particularly important as we leave a millennia-long period of relative climate stability and begin to cope with the climate chaos we have created.

Climate change sometimes recedes into the background in A Natural History of the Future … for a few pages. Dunn takes us billions of years back into evolutionary history, and he spends much of the book reviewing events of recent decades, but his aim is to elucidate our near future. And in the near future no challenges loom quite so large as climate change.

In the big picture, think small

At the outset Dunn helps us understand the scope of our ignorance. When Western scientists such as Linnæus started to classify species, they focused mostly on species which were relatively large, beautiful, or directly useful to us. These scientists also tended to work in northern Europe, an area with very little biological diversity relative to much of the world.

By the second half of the twentieth century this limited world view was being challenged from within academic science. Once they paid close attention, ecologists realized that species of insects vastly outnumber all the species of larger animals. As Terry Erwin wrote in 1982, “there might be 30 million tropical arthropod species.”

Other scientists were exploring the bewildering variety of fungi. Still others, aided by new techniques in genetics, got a glimpse of the staggering diversity of bacteria. A study published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 “estimated that there might be a trillion kinds of bacteria on Earth.”

Dunn summarizes the perspective shift in these words:

“By the time I was a graduate student, Erwin’s estimate had led scientists to imagine that most species were insects. For a while, it seemed as though fungi might be the big story. Now it seems as though, to a first approximation, every species on Earth is a bacterial species.” (A Natural History of the Future, page 28)


‘A Novel Representation of the Tree of Life’ (from Nature, 11 April 2016), shows the predominance of bacteria in the tree of life. Dunn includes a simplified version of the same graphic, and he writes: “All species with cells with nuclei are part of the Eukaryotes, represented in the lower right-hand section of the tree. … The Opisthokonta, one small part of the Eukaryote branch, is the branch that includes animals and fungi. Animals, if we zero in, are just one slender branch of the Opisthokonta. … [V]ertebrates do not get a special branch on the tree. The vertebrates are a small bud. The mammals are a cell in that bud. Humanity is, to continue the metaphor, something less than a cell.” (Graphic by Laura A. Hug, Brett J. Baker, Karthik Anantharaman, Christopher T. Brown, Alexander J. Probst, Cindy J. Castelle, Cristina N. Butterfield, Alex W. Hernsdorf, Yuki Amano, Kotaro Ise, Yohey Suzuki, Natasha Dudek, David A. Relman, Kari M. Finstad, Ronald Amundson, Brian C. Thomas and Jillian F. Banfield; via Wikimedia Commons.)


For good or ill, our smaller companions on earth have always played large roles in natural history. Termites, for example, were just another type of cockroach until they acquired the gut microbes that allow them to digest wood. We humans “are probably dependent on more species than any other species ever to exist” – including, to mention just a few, all the insects that pollinate all the plants we eat, and all the gut microbes that help us to digest that food.

While we can’t hope to fully understand or even name all the varieties of life, we can, Dunn says, understand basic rules that influence how new species evolve, how existing species go extinct, and how species interact with each other and with their changing ecosystems. If we respect those rules we lessen the chances that we will threaten our own chances of survival any further.

Islands and corridors

The book covers too many subjects to adequately summarize in one review, but consider two simple concepts. A discussion of island ecosystems highlights the principle that bigger islands tend to have more species. It is equally true that ecosystems with greater diversity of species are more stable through time.

“Islands” can refer to bodies of land surrounding by water – but also to isolated specific habitats surrounded by very different ecosystems. One effect of our own rapidly climbing population and the explosive growth of urban habitats, Dunn explains, is the fragmentation of many ecosystem into an array of tiny islands – small areas of forest or plots of prairie – surrounded by cities or monoculture farms. These fragments – islands – are often too small to support a diverse number of species, and too widely separated from similar fragments for species to move between the islands. The result is that these islands are all highly vulnerable to significant or rapid change – including the change we are now enforcing by our rapid release of greenhouse gases.

The ecology of corridors is attracting wide interest, because it is readily evident that many species will need to move to survive. In some places and for some species, corridors that we carefully preserve or recreate may help plants and animals move along with the warming climate.

Corridor biology can also have unintended and unwanted consequences, Dunn points out. Not only are we building megacities, but these megacities are sometimes merging. In the nearly unbroken urban area from Washington DC to New York City,

“We have already created a corridor, a perfect and immense corridor, but it is not a corridor for rare butterflies, jaguars, and plants. It is, instead, a corridor for urban species, species able to move along roads and live amid buildings, species that live not in green spaces but in gray ones.” (page 72)

A corridor, in other words, for pigeons, Norway rats, and less-beloved species including some of the parasites that plague people in warmer cities, and which will move north with ease as the climate heats up.

Diversity and stability

The global market economy has pumped hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and it has appropriated most of the world’s arable land for monocultures of a small number of staple crops. Taken singly each of these transformations would have destructive effects – but in tandem they put us in a real heap of trouble:

“We have built a food system that thrives when variability is minimized. But … we have also altered Earth’s climate in such a way as to make it much more variable and unpredictable.” (page 150)

The diversity-stability law implies that “Regions with a greater diversity of crops have the potential to have more stable crop yield from year to year and hence less risk of crop shortages” (page 11). Dunn cites analysis by Delphine Renard, who compared nationwide yields from 91 countries, for 176 crop species, over a 50-year period. The yields were summed in terms of calories, so that agricultural yields from corn to potatoes to peaches could be compared in a common unit of measurement. The result: Countries with high crop diversity experienced 25 percent overall yield declines an average of once in 125 years. Countries with the lowest crop diversity experienced 25 percent declines an average of once in eight years.

The coming century will be more challenging than the past century, Dunn says. It would be easier, though still difficult, if we could expect steadily rising temperatures in every area. That is not, of course, how climate change is working. Instead, the general heating trend will be punctuated at unpredictable intervals by damaging cold spells. Dry areas are likely to get dryer, but with occasional damaging downpours, while wet areas get wetter but experience occasional droughts.

Considering climate physics and ecological principles together, then, it is essential that we begin the re-diversification of agriculture.

Other topics that Dunn covers include the dangers in indiscriminate use of biocidal chemicals – be they antibacterial hand creams routinely applied, antibiotics routinely added to animal feed, or herbicides sprayed on nearly every major crop field in whole countries. He discusses why some types of avian intelligence will help birds cope with climate change, while other kinds of birds will be at a terrible disadvantage. He explains that in spite of our advanced technologies, the dense concentrations of humans occupy the same geographic areas today that we tended to favor 6,000 years ago; this is a subject I hope to return to in a coming blog post.

The final chapter focuses once again on bacteria. We humans will die off some day, Dunn says, because no species last forever. If we mess up in spectacular fashion, millions of other multi-celled species will go extinct along with us – mammals, birds, fish, insects, trees and flowers. But uncounted millions of unicellular species – teeming masses of bacteria that thrive in scalding heat, concentrated acids, or intense radiation – will survive any calamities we are able to bring on.

A Natural History of the Future is a big book in its scope and in the degree of detail. Throughout, Dunn makes things clear for non-specialist readers. Highly recommended.


Photo at top of page: A Mastotermes darwiniensis worker termite. The giant northern termite is a large endemic species which lives in colonies in trees and logs in the tropical areas of Australia. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), via Wikimedia Commons.

For better or worse, we adapt

Also posted on Resilience.

Affluent owners of seashore properties buy up homes a safer distance from the coast – pricing poor residents out of communities they have called home for generations. Rural residents set up agro-forestry enclaves on mountain slopes, capturing some of the increasingly unpredictable rainfall. Relatively wealthy nations build and guard fences at their borders to keep climate refugees away. Water bombers fly hundreds of sorties from lakes and reservoirs to fires raging in drought-ravaged forests.

All these climate change adaptations have been happening for years now. But among the hundreds of examples of climate change adaption one could identify, some responses simultaneously work against climate change mitigation, and many work against climate justice – they are what Morgan Phillips terms “climate change maladaptations.”

He wants environmentalists to think more clearly about adaptation strategies so that we can get on with the urgent work of what he calls great adaptations. That’s the point of his recent book Great Adaptations: In the shadow of a climate crisis. (Arkbound, Sept 2021)

When he joined The Glacier Trust in support of adaptation projects in Nepal, Phillips learned that

“Lives in the Himalayan villages I have visited are on a knife edge. Landslides, floods, glacial retreat, drought, fire, air pollution, and insect pests are haunting the future of an already fragile country; it is on the brink of being turned upside down. … I knew that climate change needed to be mitigated, but the need to adapt to it is far greater than I’d ever imagined.” (Great Adaptations (GA), page 3)

Yet in 2020 The Glacier Trust “found that only 0.82% of articles written by the UK’s five biggest environmental organisations are focused on climate change adaptation.” (GA p 197)

There are valid reasons why, historically, environmental organizations preferred to focus on climate change mitigation rather than adaptation.1 If global economic elites had put serious work into mitigation 30 years ago, instead of lip service, we might not be in a position today where climate change adaption is, and will remain for generations, an urgent task.

In choosing to focus his book on adaptation, Phillips makes it clear that mitigation remains as essential as ever. We need to begin creative and effective adaptation projects around the world, because climate-induced crises are already happening. At the same time, without urgent mitigation work – primarily through a rapid curtailment of fossil fuel use – the climate crises will become so severe that effective adaptation in many areas will be impossible.

His book is wide-ranging but clearly written and free of obfuscating jargon. It deserves a wide audience because his message is so important:

“In the same spirit in which we call for a just transition to a low-carbon society, we must also call for just adaptation to climate change. They are two sides of the same coin.” (GA p 15)

Some of the adaptations Phillips discusses are as particular as changing one farming practice on one particular landscape. Others span the globe and involve changes to the international economic order, accepted definitions of universal human rights, or both. One great adaptation – forgiveness of debt – could be an effective step towards international justice whether or not it is enacted with climate change in mind:

“Cancellation of historical and unfair debts would save countries millions of dollars every year. This money could be put to use on climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.” (GA p 14)

Migration is another obvious adaptation to the climate crisis. Current citizenship law and current property law result in a crushing burden being paid by those who typically have done the least to cause the climate crisis. To achieve justice in climate adaptation, “we all also need to be free to find refuge and a new life in a country of our choosing if we want to – or are forced to – migrate because of climate change.” (GA p 14)

In some regions permanent migration might be neither desired nor necessary, but seasonal migration may be appropriate. Phillips notes that migratory lifestyles have been freely chosen by many cultures throughout history and we should open our minds – and our legal structures – to facilitate this adaptation strategy.

It should be clear that effective and just adaptation will call into question the deepest foundations of global political economy. Phillips harbors no illusions about the scale and the difficulty of the challenge. “My feeling,” he writes “is that to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, ‘Western’ civilisation needs to be disassembled with great urgency and great care.” (GA p 149)

Citing Rupert Read, he considers the possibility of “a successor civilisation after some kind of collapse [of ‘Western’ civilisation]”. As an example of such a many-faceted response to climate crisis, Phillips discusses the “Make Rojava Green Again” movement in the region Western media refer to as Kurdistan. In his description,

“The ‘Make Rojava Green Again’ movement has strong ecological, multicultural, democratic, and feminist principles. It is based on a political system of democratic confederalism, where power is devolved to as local a level as possible ….” (GA p 167)

The Rojavan example has been inspiring to people around the world, not only because of its egalitarian and ecological principles, but also because the movement has become a decisive force in the wake of the global proxy war in Syria and the failed US occupation of Iraq. The response to this civilizational collapse has been, not an attempt to return to business as usual, but a new way of life: “‘Make Rojava Green Again’, and other ‘Phoenix’ like it, are so important because they help us to imagine different kinds of future. Rojavan’s are willing to challenge the value structures that underpin ‘Western’ civilisation.” (GA p 170)

The adaptation examples Phillips considers come from rich countries, poor countries, megacities, and sparsely populated rural areas. They are equally diverse in their effects: some adaptations reinforce inequalities; some adaptations fuel additional global heating; some adaptations help mitigate climate change while supporting global justice; many adaptations are neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.

But simply ignoring adaptation is a very risky strategy, “especially if the responsibility for adaptation is left in the hands of central Governments, large NGOs, and big businesses that are, by nature, resistant to anything truly transformative.” (GA p 197)

With this book, Phillips writes, “The Glacier Trust is trying to frame adaptation as a positive and transformative process grounded in the principles of social justice and ecological enhancement.” (GA p 204)

We must adapt to climate changes in future, and we are adapting already. But if the adaptations are merely ad hoc and not thoughtfully considered, they are more likely to be maladaptations than great adaptations.


1 Paul Cox and Stan Cox provide an excellent historical overview of the mitigation/adaptation divide in their chapter “Adaptation and Mitigation Amid the Consequences of Failure”. (In Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency, Post Carbon Institute, 2021.) They conclude that “Societies once could choose between changing direction or dealing with climatic disaster; now it is necessary to do both at once.”


Image at top: Grounding of John B. Caddell (tanker ship) by Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 in New York City. Photo by Jim Henderson, on Wikimedia Common.

‘This is a key conversation to have.’

This afternoon Post Carbon Institute announced the release of the new book Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency. That brings to fruition a project more than two-and-a-half years in the making.

Cover of Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency

In May 2019, I received an email from Clifford Cobb, editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. He asked if I would consider serving as Guest Editor for an issue of the Journal, addressing “problems of transition to a world of climate instability and rising energy prices.” I said “yes” – and then, month by month, learned how difficult it can be to assemble a book-length collection of essays. In July, 2020, this was published by Wiley and made accessible to academic readers around the world.

It had always been a goal, however, to also release this collection as a printed volume, for the general public, at an accessible price. With the help of the Post Carbon Institute that plan is now realized. On their website you can download the book’s Introduction –which sets the context and gives an overview of each chapter – at no cost; download the entire book in pdf format for only $9.99US; or find online retailers around the world to buy the print edition of the book.

Advance praise for Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency:

“Energy descent is crucial to stopping climate and ecological breakdown. This is a key conversation to have.” – Peter Kalmus, climate scientist, author of Being The Change

“This lively and insightful collection is highly significant for identifying key trends in transitioning to low-energy futures.” – Anitra Nelson, author of Small is Necessary

“The contributors to this volume have done us a tremendous service.” – Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute, author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

“For those already applying permaculture in their lives and livelihoods, this collection of essays is affirmation that we are on the right track for creative adaption to a world of less. This book helps fill the conceptual black hole that still prevails in academia, media, business and politics.” – David Holmgren, co-originator of Permaculture, author of RetroSuburbia

“The contributors explain why it is time to stop thinking so much about efficiency and start thinking about sufficiency: how much do we really need? What’s the best tool to do the job? What is enough? They describe a future that is not just sustainable but is regenerative, and where there is enough for everyone living in a low-carbon world.” – Lloyd Alter, Design Editor at treehugger.com and author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More Than Ever


Some sources for the print edition:

In North America, Barnes & Noble

In Britain, Blackwell’s  and Waterstones

In Australia, Booktopia

Worldwide, from Amazon

Climate change, citizenship, and the global caste system

Also published on Resilience.org

Suppose humanity survives through the 21st century. Our descendants may shudder to realize their own grandparents blithely accepted, perhaps even praised, a rigid caste system that offered rich opportunities to a minority while consigning the vast majority to a brutal struggle for mere existence.

This week hundreds of millions of people in North America will celebrate their citizenships as both Canada and the United States mark national holidays. But citizenship has always been primarily about who is excluded from the vaunted rights and privileges, writes Dimitry Kochenov.

In his superb and sobering essay Citizenship: The Great Extinguisher of Hope, Kochenov argues that 

“Citizenship’s connection to ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion. … Citizenship, as one of the key tools for locking the poorest populations within the confines of their dysfunctional states, thus perpetuates and reinforces global inequality ….”

His 2019 book Citizenship (MIT Press) allows Kochenov to explore the character of citizenship at greater length. He traces the concept back to Aristotle’s Athens, where inequality and the erasure of individuality were at the very core of citizenship. He explores the changing rationale for citizenship in settler colonialism, and points out the explicit sexism in most countries’ citizenship rules right into the second half of the 20th century. He argues that the concept of universal human rights, increasingly influential in the post World War II era, conflicts squarely with the exclusionary privileges of citizenship.

Other than noting that the citizenship system will face continued challenges in the future, however, Kochenov’s book and essay stick with what has been true in the past and what is true today. Nevertheless in reading his work it’s hard not to think about an increasingly urgent issue for our global future.

The effects of climate change, caused overwhelmingly by the cumulative carbon emissions in wealthy and privileged countries, are threatening the homelands of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people. Already the number of persons displaced by war, famine and climate change – tangled phenomena whose roots can’t always be separated – is at a 75-year high of about 65 million people (Vox, Jan 30, 2017). Yet just another 20 or 30 years of an unchecked fossil-fuel economy is expected to boost the numbers of climate refugees into the hundreds of millions, as low-lying coastal areas flood, and vast areas close to the equator become too hot for the survival of food crops or indeed for the humans that depend on those crops.

Can there be any ethical justification for an international legal edifice that awards millions nothing better than the “right” to be a citizen of a land that increasingly cannot support human life? The ethical crisis in our global caste system, described so bitingly and in such detail by Kochenov, will become even less conscionable as the climate crisis worsens.

‘Super-citizenships’ and the long reach of colonialism

Kochenov writes that “The status of citizenship traditionally has been absolute and irrevocable” (Citizenship, p. 81), but there are cracks in the legal framework today. Changes have happened partly to satisfy the wishes of settler colonial societies who wanted immigrants from certain countries (and just as strongly, did not want immigrants from other countries). In recent decades other changes have come about through decisions by the European Court of Human Rights.

It is possible and indeed attractive to imagine (if you hold a favored and desired citizenship) that this status is freely chosen. Yet Kochenov writes that “all the cases of naturalization [acquiring a citizenship other than the one originally assigned] in the world combined would still amount to less than 2 percent of the world’s population” (Citizenship, p. 2).

Compounding the injustice of assigning drastically varying life opportunities at birth through citizenship, the process of naturalization also tends to be difficult or impossible for those with the least desirable citizenships, and easiest for those who are already privileged.

Citizens of impoverished countries typically wait for months or years simply to acquire travel visas, wait even longer for the uncertain decisions on foreign work permits, and even after that may or may not be given a chance at citizenship in a country that offers a minimally acceptable standard of living. For those who won the birth lottery and thus were granted citizenship in a wealthy country, it tends to be far easier to gain a second or third citizenship in an equally or even more prosperous nation.

Full disclosure: I hold two of what Kochenov terms “super-citizenships” – which come with the right to travel in dozens of other wealthy countries without pre-clearance – and I haven’t always been aware of this wholly unearned degree of privilege. In the first instance, I was lifted up by my still wet heels, spanked on my ass, and from my very first cry I was a citizen of the United States. In another solemn ceremony many years later, I became a citizen of the sovereign nation of Canada by affirming true allegiance to the Queen of England.

But while the rules governing the assignment of both original citizenships and naturalizations are diverse and sometimes absurd, the effects of the granting and especially of the denial of citizenship are deadly serious.

Kochenov details the racist provisions in both Canadian and US law for much of their histories – but perhaps more significantly he describes the systemic racism of citizenship law and practice throughout the contemporary world:

“Decolonization and its aftermath have in fact upgraded the racial divide in the area of citizenship by confining the majority of the former colonial inferiors to ‘their own states,’ which are behind impenetrable visa walls ….” (Citizenship, p. 97)

Refugees aside – and refugees must risk their very lives simply to ask to be considered for a new citizenship – the relative few who dramatically upgrade their citizenship status tend to have some other advantage, such as exceptional talent, a rare and sought-after skill, or enough money to buy property or start a business.

There is a great deal more of value in Kochenov’s Citizenship: for example, the way the concept of citizenship is used to urge, persuade, or compel acceptance of the political status quo. I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in human rights, the law, the history and future of inequality – or essential issues of global justice in a world ravaged by climate change.

And this week, as Canadian and American citizens take time off for national holidays, we will do well to keep Kochenov’s summation in mind:

“Distributed like prizes in a lottery where four-fifths of the world’s population loses, citizenship is clothed in the language of self-determination and freedom, elevating hypocrisy as one of the status’s core features. … Citizenship’s connection to ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion.” (Citizenship, p. 240)


Photo at top of page: Layers of Concertina are added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S. – Mexico border near Nogales, AZ, February 4, 2019. Photo: Robert Bushell. Photo taken for United States Department of Homeland Security. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Questions as big as the atmosphere

A review of After Geoengineering

Also published at Resilience.org

After Geoengineering is published by Verso Books, Oct 1 2019.

What is the best-case scenario for solar geoengineering? For author Holly Jean Buck and the scientists she interviews, the best-case scenario is that we manage to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, and the idea of geoengineering quietly fades away.

But before that can happen, Buck explains, we will need heroic global efforts both to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and to remove much of the excess carbon we have already loosed into the skies.

She devotes most of her new book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration to proposed methods for drawing down carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere. Only after showing the immense difficulties in the multi-generational task of carbon drawdown does she directly discuss techniques and implications of solar geoengineering (defined here as an intentional modification of the upper atmosphere, meant to block a small percentage of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby counteracting part of global heating).

The book is well-researched, eminently readable, and just as thought-provoking on a second reading as on the first. Unfortunately there is little examination of the way future energy supply constraints will affect either carbon drawdown or solar engineering efforts. That significant qualification aside, After Geoengineering is a superb effort to grapple with some of the biggest questions for our collective future.

Overshoot

The fossil fuel frenzy in the world’s richest countries has already put us in greenhouse gas overshoot, so some degree of global heating will continue even if, miraculously, there were an instant political and economic revolution which ended all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow. Can we limit the resulting global heating to 1.5°C? At this late date our chances aren’t good.

As Greta Thunberg explained in her crystal clear fashion to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” 1

As Klaus Lackner, one of the many researchers interviewed by Buck, puts it, when you’ve been digging yourself into a hole, of course the first thing you need to do is stop digging – but then you still need to fill in the hole.2

How can we fill in the hole – in our case, get excess carbon back out of the atmosphere? There are two broad categories, biological processes and industrial processes, plus some technologies that cross the lines. Biological processes include regenerative agriculture and afforestation while industrial processes are represented most prominently by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

Buck summarizes key differences this way:

“Cultivation is generative. Burial, however, is pollution disposal, is safety, is sequestering something away where it can’t hurt you anymore. One approach generates life; the other makes things inert.” (After Geoengineering (AG), page 122)

Delving into regenerative agriculture, she notes that “over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original organic carbon” (AG, p 101).

Regenerative agriculture will gradually restore that carbon content in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide in the air – while also making the soil more fertile, reducing wind and water erosion, increasing the capacity of the soil to stay healthy when challenged by extreme rainfalls or drought, and making agriculture ecologically sustainable in contrast to industrial agriculture’s ongoing stripping the life from soil.

Regenerative agriculture cannot, however, counteract the huge volumes of excess carbon dioxide we are currently putting into the atmosphere. And even when we have cut emissions to zero, Buck writes, regenerative agriculture is limited in how much of the excess carbon it can draw down:

“soil carbon accrual rates decrease as stocks reach a new equilibrium. Sequestration follows a curve: the new practices sequester a lot of carbon at first, for the first two decades or so, but this diminishes over time toward a new plateau. Soil carbon sequestration is therefore a one-off method of carbon removal.” (AG, p 102)

There are other types of cultivation that can draw down carbon dioxide, and Buck interviews researchers in many of these fields. The planting of billions of trees has received the most press, and this could store a lot of carbon. But it also takes a lot of land, and it’s all too easy to imagine that more frequent and fiercer wildfires could destroy new forests just when they have started to accumulate major stores of carbon.

Biochar – the burying of charcoal in a way that stores carbon for millennia while also improving soil fertility – was practiced for centuries by indigenous civilizations in the Amazon. Its potential on a global scale is largely untapped but is the subject of promising research.

In acknowledging the many uncertainties in under-researched areas, Buck does offer some slender threads of hope here. Scientists say that “rocks for crops” techniques – in which certain kinds of rock are ground up and spread on farmland – could absorb a lot of carbon while also providing other soil nutrients. In the lab, the carbon absorption is steady but geologically slow, but there is some evidence that in the real world, the combined effects of microbes and plant enzymes may speed up the weathering process by at least an order of magnitude. (AG, p 145-146)

The cultivation methods offer a win-win-win scenario for carbon drawdown – but we’re on pace to a greenhouse gas overshoot that will likely dwarf the drawdown capacity of these methods. Buck estimates that cultivation methods, at the extremes of their potential, could sequester perhaps 10 to 20 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide per year (and that figure would taper off once most agricultural soils had been restored to a healthy state). That is unlikely to be anywhere near enough:

“Imagine that emissions flatline in 2020; the world puts in a strong effort to hold them steady, but it doesn’t manage to start decreasing them until 2030. … But ten years steady at 50 Gt CO2 eq [carbon dioxide equivalent emissions include other gases such as methane] – and there goes another 500 Gt CO2 eq into the atmosphere. That one decade would cancel out the 500 Gt CO2 eq the soils and forests could sequester over the next 50 years (sequestered at an extreme amount of effort and coordination among people around the whole world).” (AG p 115)

With every year that we pump out fossil fuel emissions, then, we compound the intergenerational crime we have already committed against Greta Thunberg and her children’s generations. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the probability that biological, generative methods of carbon drawdown will be too slow. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the degree to which future generations will be compelled to engage in industrial carbon drawdown work, using technologies which do not enrich the soil, which produce no food, which will not directly aid the millions of species struggling for survival, and which will suck up huge amounts of energy.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has earned a bad name for good reasons. To date most CCS projects – even those barely past the concept stage – have been promoted by fossil fuel interests. CCS projects offer them research subsidies for ways to continue their fossil fuel businesses, plus a public relations shine as proponents of “clean” energy.

A lignite mine in southwest Saskatchewan. This fossil fuel deposit is home to one of the few operating Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Carbon from a coal-fired generating station is captured and pumped into a depleting oil reservoir – for the purpose of prolonging petroleum production.

Buck argues that in spite of these factors, we need to think about CCS technologies separate from their current capitalist contexts. First of all, major use of CCS technologies alongside continued carbon emissions would not be remotely adequate – we will need to shut off carbon emissions AND draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And there is no obvious way to fit an ongoing, global program of CCS into the framework of our current corporatocracy.

The fossil fuel interests possess much of the technical infrastructure that could be used for CCS, but their business models rely on the sale of polluting products. So if CCS is to be done in a sustained fashion, it will need to be done in a publicly-funded way where the service, greenhouse gas drawdown, is for the benefit of the global public (indeed, the whole web of life, present and future); there will be no “product” to sell.

However CCS efforts are organized, they will need to be massive in order to cope with the amounts of carbon emissions that fossil fuel interests are still hell-bent on releasing. In the words of University of Southern California geologist Joshua West,

“The fossil fuels industry has an enormous footprint …. Effectively, if we want to offset that in an industrial way, we have to have an industry that is of equivalent proportion ….” (AG, p 147)

Imagine an industrial system that spans the globe, employing as many people and as much capital as the fossil fuel industries do today. But this industry will produce no energy, no wealth, no products – it will be busy simply managing the airborne refuse bequeathed by a predecessor economy whose dividends have long since been spent.

So while transitioning the entire global economy to strictly renewable energies, the next generations will also need enough energy to run an immense atmospheric garbage-disposal project.

After Geoengineering gives brief mentions but no sustained discussion of this energy crunch.

One of the intriguing features of the book is the incorporation of short fictional sketches of lives and lifestyles in coming decades. These sketches are well drawn, offering vivid glimpses of characters dealing with climate instability and working in new carbon drawdown industries. The vignettes certainly help in putting human faces and feelings into what otherwise might remain abstract theories.

Yet there is no suggestion that restricted energy supplies will be a limiting factor. The people in the sketches still travel in motorized vehicles, check their computers for communications, run artificial intelligence programs to guide their work, and watch TV in their high-rise apartments. In these sketches, people have maintained recognizably first-world lifestyles powered by zero-emission energy technologies, while managing a carbon drawdown program on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry.

If you lean strongly towards optimism you may hope for that outcome – but how can anyone feel realistically confident in that outcome?

The lack of a serious grappling with this energy challenge is, in my mind, the major shortcoming in After Geoengineering. And big questions about energy supply will hang in the air not only around carbon sequestration, but also around solar geoengineering if humanity comes to that.

Shaving the peak

Solar geoengineering –  the intentional pumping of substances into the upper atmosphere into order to block a percentage of incoming sunlight to cool the earth – has also earned a bad name among climate activists. It is, of course, a dangerous idea – just as extreme as the practice of pumping billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to overheat the earth.

But Buck makes a good case – a convincing case, in my opinion – that in order to justifiably rule out solar geoengineering, we and our descendants will have to do a very good job at both eliminating carbon emissions and drawing down our current excess of carbon dioxide, fast.

Suppose we achieve something which seems far beyond the capabilities of our current political and economic leadership. Suppose we get global carbon emissions on a steep downward track, and suppose that the coming generation manages to transition to 100% renewable while also starting a massive carbon drawdown industry. That would be fabulous – and it still may not be enough.

As Buck points out, just as it has proven difficult to predict just how fast the earth system responds to a sustained increased in carbon dioxide levels, nobody really knows how quickly the earth system would respond to a carbon drawdown process. The upshot: even in an era where carbon dioxide levels are gradually dropping, it will be some time before long-term warming trends reverse. And during that interim a lot of disastrous things could happen.

Take the example of coral reefs. Reef ecosystems are already dying due to ocean acidification, and more frequent oceanic heat waves threaten to stress reefs beyond survival. Buck writes,

“Reefs protect coasts from storms; without them, waves reaching some Pacific islands would be twice as tall. Over 500 million people depend on reef ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Therefore, keeping these ecosystems functioning is a climate justice issue.” (AG, p 216)

In a scenario about as close to best-case as we could realistically expect, the global community might achieve dropping atmospheric carbon levels, but still need to buy time for reefs until temperatures in the air and in the ocean have dropped back to a safe level. This is the plausible scenario studied by people looking into a small-scale type of geoengineering – seeding the air above reefs with a salt-water mist that could, on a regional scale only, reflect back sunlight and offer interim protection to essential and vulnerable ecosystems.

One could say that this wouldn’t really be geoengineering, since it wouldn’t affect the whole globe – and certainly any program to affect the whole globe would involve many more dangerous uncertainties.

Yet due to our current and flagrantly negligent practice of global-heating-geoengineering, it is not hard to imagine a scenario this century where an intentional program of global-cooling-geoengineering may come to be a reasonable choice.

Buck takes us through the reasoning with the following diagram:

From After Geoengineering, page 219

If we rapidly cut carbon emissions to zero, and we also begin a vast program of carbon removal, there will still be a significant time lag before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have dropped to a safe level and global temperatures have come back down. And in that interim, dangerous tipping points could be crossed.

To look at just one: the Antarctic ice sheets are anchored in place by ice shelves extending into the ocean. When warming ocean water has melted these ice shelves, a serious tipping point is reached. In the words of Harvard atmospheric scientist Peter Irvine,

“Because of the way the glaciers meet the ocean, when they start to retreat, they have kind of a runaway retreat. Again, very slow, like a couple of centuries. Five centuries. But once it starts, it’s not a temperature-driven thing; it’s a dynamic-driven thing … Once the ice shelf is sheared off or melted away, it’s not there to hold the ice sheet back and there’s this kind of dynamic response.” (AG, p 236)

The melting of these glaciers, of course, would flood the homes of billions of people, along with a huge proportion of the world’s agricultural land and industrial infrastructure.

So given the current course of history, it’s not at all far-fetched that the best option available in 50 years might be a temporary but concerted program of solar geoengineering. If this could “shave the peak” off a temperature overshoot, and thereby stop the Antarctic ice from crossing a tipping point, would that be a crazy idea? Or would it be a crazy idea not to do solar geoengineering?

These questions will not go away in our lifetimes. But if our generation and the next can end the fossil fuel frenzy, then just possibly the prospect of geoengineering can eventually be forgotten forever.


1 Greta Thunberg, “If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them”, address to United Nations, New York, September 23, 2019, as printed in The Guardian.
2 In the webinar “Towards a 20 GT Negative CO2 Emissions Industry”, sponsored by Security and Sustainability Forum, Sept 19, 2019.

Pulling the plug on fossil fuel production subsidies

Also published at Resilience.org

How long would the fossil fuel economy last if we took it off life support?

Or to state the question more narrowly and less provocatively, what would happen if we removed existing subsidies to fossil fuel production?

Some fossil fuel producers are still highly profitable even without subsidies, of course. But a growing body of research shows that many new petroleum-extraction projects are economically marginal at best.

Since the global economy is addicted to energy-fueled growth, even a modest drop in fossil fuel supply – for example, the impact on global oil supplies if the US fracking industry were to crash – would have major consequences for the current economic order.

On the other hand, climate justice demands a rapid overall reduction to fossil fuel consumption, and from that standpoint subsidies aimed at maintaining current fossil fuel supply levels are counterproductive, to say the least.

As a 2015 review of subsidies put it:

“G20 country governments are providing $444 billion a year in subsidies for the production of fossil fuels. Their continued support for fossil fuel production marries bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for the climate.” 1

This essay will consider the issue of fossil-fuel production subsidies from several angles:

  • Subsidies are becoming more important to fossil fuel producers as producers shift to unconventional oil production.
  • Many countries, including G20 countries, have paid lip service to the need to cut fossil fuel subsidies – but action has not followed.
  • Until recently most climate change mitigation policy has been focused on reducing demand, but a strong focus on reducing supply could be an important strategy for Green New Deal campaigners.

Ending subsidies to producers can play a key role in taking the fossil fuel economy off life support – or we can wait for the planet to take our civilization off life support.

Producer subsidies and the bottom line

A 2014 paper from the Oxford Centre for the Analysis of Resource Rich Economies takes a broad look at subsidization trends in many countries and over several decades. In “Into the Mire”2, Radoslav Stefanski aims to get around the problem of scarce or inconsistent data by, in his words, “a method of so-called revealed preference to back out subsidies.”

Stefanski does not focus specifically on subsidies to producers. Instead, he is concerned with inferring an overall net subsidy rate, which is the difference between subsidies aimed at either fossil fuel producers and consumers, and the taxes levied on fossil fuels at the production and consumption end.

He finds that “between 1980 and 2000 the world spent – on average – 268 billion USD (measured in 1990 PPP terms) a year on implicit fossil fuel subsidies.” Starting from the late 1990s, however – when it should have been clear that it was globally essential to begin the transition away from fossil-fuel dependence – the rate of subsidization grew rapidly in several regions.

In particular, Stefanski finds, “the vast majority of the increase comes from just two countries: China and the US.”

In North America, he says “until the 1990s the policy was fairly neutral with a slight tendency towards subsidization. Subsequently however, fossil fuel subsidies exploded and the region became the second highest subsidizing region after East Asia.”

Not only did the global price of oil see a rapid rise after 2000, but North American production saw a huge growth in production through two unconventional methods: hydraulic fracturing of oil-bearing shale, and mining of tar sands. These oil resources had been known for decades, but getting the oil out had always been too expensive for significant production.

A 2017 paper in Nature Energy shows how crucial subsidies have been in making such production increases possible.

Entitled “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, the paper quantifies the importance of state and federal subsidies for new oil extraction projects.

The authors found that at then-current prices of about US$50 per barrel,

“tax preferences and other subsidies push nearly half of new, yet-to-be-developed oil investments into profitability, potentially increasing US oil production by 17 billion barrels over the next few decades.3

The projects that would only be profitable if current subsidies continue include roughly half of those in the largest shale oil areas, and most of the deep-sea sites in the Gulf of Mexico – all areas which have been critical in the growth of a reputed new energy superpower often referred to triumphantly as “Saudi America”.

From Erickson et al, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, 2017.

The authors also estimate the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from continuing these subsidies to otherwise-failing projects. In their tally, the additional carbon emissions coming from these projects would amount to 20% of the US carbon budget between now and 2050, given the widely accepted need to keep global warming to a limit of 2°C. In other words, the additional carbon emissions from US oil due to producer subsidies is far from trivial.

Extending this theme to other jurisdictions with high-cost oil – think Canada, for example – the authors of Empty Promises note “the highest cost fields that benefit most from subsidisation often have higher carbon intensity per unit of fuel produced.”4,5

The Nature Energy study is based on an oil price of US$50 per barrel, and says that subsidies may not be so important for profitability at substantially higher prices.

Another recent look at the fracking boom, however, reveals that the US fracking boom – particularly fracking for crude oil as opposed to natural gas – has been financially marginal even when prices hovered near $100 per barrel.

Bethany McLean’s book Saudi America6 is a breezy look at the US fracking industry from its origins up to 2018. Her focus is mostly financial: the profitability (or not) of the fracking industry as a whole, for individual companies, and for the financial institutions which have backed it. Her major conclusion is “The biggest reason to doubt the most breathless predictions  about America’s future as an oil and gas colossus has more to do with Wall Street than with geopolitics or geology. The fracking of oil, in particular, rests on a financial foundation that is far less secure than most people realize.” (Saudi America, page 17)

Citing the work of investment analyst David Einhorn, she writes

“Einhorn found that from 2006 to 2014, the fracking firms had spent $80 billion more than they had received from selling oil and gas. Even when oil was at $100 a barrel, none of them generated excess cash flow—in fact, in 2014, when oil was at $100 for part of the year, the group burned through $20 billion.” (Saudi America, page 54-55)

It seems sensible to think that if firms can stay solvent when their product sells for $50 per barrel, surely they must make huge profits at $100 per barrel. But it’s not that simple, McLean explains, because of the non-constant pricing of the many services that go into fracking a well.

“Service costs are cyclical, meaning that as the price of oil rises and demand for services increases, the costs rise too. As the price of oil falls and demand dwindles, service companies slash to the bone in an effort to retain what meager business there is.” (Saudi America, page 90)

In the long run, clearly, the fracking industry is not financially sustainable unless each of the essential services that make up the industry are financially sustainable. That must include, of course, the financial services that make this capital-intensive business possible.

“If it weren’t for historically low interest rates, it’s not clear there would even have been a fracking boom,” McLean writes, adding that “The fracking boom has been fueled mostly by overheated investment capital, not by cash flow.”7

These low interest rates represent opportunity to cash-strapped drillers, and they represent a huge challenge for many financial interests:

“low interest rates haven’t just meant lower borrowing costs for debt-laden companies. The lack of return elsewhere also led pension funds, which need to be able to pay retirees, to invest massive amounts of money with hedge funds that invest in high yield debt, like that of energy firms, and with private equity firms—which, in turn, shoveled money into shale companies, because in a world devoid of growth, shale at least was growing.” (Saudi America, page 91)

But if the industry as a whole is cash-flow negative, then it can’t end well for either drillers or investors, and the whole enterprise may only be able to stay afloat – even in the short term – due to producer subsidies.

Supply and demand

Many regulatory and fiscal policies designed to reduce carbon emissions have focused on reducing demand. The excellent and wide-ranging book Designing Climate Solutions by Hal Harvey et al. (reviewed here) is almost exclusively devoted to measures that will reduce fossil fuel demand – though the authors state in passing that it is important to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.

The authors of the Nature Energy paper on US producer subsidies note that

“How subsidies to consumers affect energy decision-making is relatively well studied, in part because these subsidies have comparatively clear impacts on price …. The impact of subsidies to fossil fuel producers on decision-making is much less well understood ….” 8

Nevertheless there has been a strong trend in climate activism to stop the expansion of fossil fuels on the supply side – think of the fossil fuel divestment movement and the movement to prevent the construction of new pipelines.

A 2018 paper in the journal Climatic Change says that policymakers too are taking another look at the importance of supply-side measures: “A key insight driving these new approaches is that the political and economic interests and institutions that underpin fossil fuel production help to perpetuate fossil fuel use and even to increase it.”9

The issue of “lock-in” is an obvious reason to stop fossil fuel production subsidies – and an obvious reason that large fossil fuel interests, including associated lending agencies and governments, work behind the scenes to retain such subsidies.

Producer subsidies create perverse incentives that will tend to maintain the market position of otherwise uneconomic fossil fuel sources. Subsidies help keep frackers alive and producing rather than filing for bankruptcy. Subsidies help finance the huge upfront costs of bringing new tar sands extraction projects on line, and then with the “sunk costs” already invested these projects are incentivized to keep pumping out oil even when they are selling it at a loss. Subsidy-enabled production can contribute to overproduction, lowering the costs of fossil fuels and making it more difficult for renewable energy technologies to compete. And subsidy-enabled production increases the “carbon entanglement” of financial services which are invested in such projects and thus have strong incentive to keep extraction going rather than leaving fossil fuel in the ground.

Carbon-entangled governments tend to be just as closely tied to big banks as they are to fossil fuel companies. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that in 2018 the G7 Fossil Fuels Subsidy Scorecard noted that “not a single G7 government has ended fiscal support or public finance to oil and gas production, with Canada providing the highest levels of support (per unit of GDP).”10

Fossil fuel producer subsidies and the Green New Deal

Major international climate change conferences have long agreed that fossil fuel subsidies must be phased out, ASAP, but little progress has been made.

The first step in getting out of a deep hole is to stop digging, and at this point in our climate crisis it seems crazy or criminal to keep digging the hole of fossil fuel lock-in by subsidizing new extraction projects.

Many major fossil fuel corporations have expressed their support for carbon taxes as a preferred method of addressing the climate change challenge. I am not aware, however, of such corporate leaders advocating the simpler and more obvious approach of removing all fossil fuel subsidies.

Perhaps this is because they know that carbon taxes almost always start out too small to make much difference, and that every attempt to raise them will stir intense opposition from lower- and middle-income consumers who feel the bite of such taxes most directly.

The costs of producer subsidies, on the other hand, are spread across the entire population, while the benefits are concentrated very effectively among fossil fuel corporations and their financial backers. And by boosting the supply of fossil fuels, especially oil, to a level that could not be maintained under “free market” requirements for profitability, these subsidies maintain the hope of continuous economic growth based on supposedly cheap energy.

The sudden popularity of “Green New Deal” ideas in several countries raises essential questions about political strategy. There is no single silver bullet, and a range of political and economic changes will need to be made. Though one major goal – eliminate most fossil fuel use by about 2030 and the rest by 2050 – is simple and clear, there are many means to move towards that goal, not all of them equally effective or equally feasible.

A swift elimination of producer subsidies, and a redirection of those funds to employment retraining and rehiring in renewable energy projects, strikes me as a potential political winner. Major fossil fuel interests, including big investment firms, can be counted on to oppose such a shift, of course – but they have shown themselves to be determined lobbyists for the preservation of the fossil fuel economy anyway.

Among the overwhelming majority of voters without big financial portfolios, the cessation of handouts to corporations strikes me as an easier sell than carbon taxes levied directly and regressively on consumers.


Photo at top: port of IJmuiden, Netherlands, September 2018.


Footnotes

1 Empty Promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, published by Overseas Development Institute and Oilchange International, 2015, page 11

2 “Into the Mire: A closer look at fossil fuel subsidies”, by Radoslav Stefanski, 2014.

3 Peter Erickson, Adrian Down, Michael Lazarus and Doug Koplow, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, Nature Energy 2, pages 891-898 (2017).

4 Empty Promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, published by Overseas Development Institute and Oilchange International, 2015, page 17

The same hurdles to unsubsidized profitability apparently apply outside of North America. See, for example, this article detailing how major fracking ventures in Argentina are likely to stall or fail due to declining subsidies: “IEEFA report: Argentina’s Vaca Muerta Patagonia fracking plan is financially risky, fiscally perilous”, March 21, 2019

 Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World, by Bethany McLean. Columbia Global Reports, 2018.

McLean’s reading echoes the analysis in the 2017 book Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, by Cambridge University economist Helen Thompson.

Peter Erickson, Adrian Down, Michael Lazarus and Doug Koplow, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, Nature Energy 2, pages 891-898 (2017).

Michael Lazarus and Harro van Asselt, “Fossil fuel supply and climate policy: exploring the road less taken,” Climatic Change, August 2018, page 1

10 G7 Fossil Fuels Subsidy Scorecard, Overseas Development Institute, Oilchange International, NRDC, IISD, June 2018, page 9

Designing Climate Solutions – a big-picture view that doesn’t skimp on details

Also published at Resilience.org

Let us pause for a moment of thanks to the policy wonks, who work within the limitations of whatever is currently politically permissible and take important steps forward in their branches of bureaucracy.

Let us also give thanks to those who cannot work within those limitations, and who are determined to transform what is and is not politically permissible.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy is published by Island Press, November 2018.

An excellent new book from Island Press makes clear that both approaches to the challenge of climate disruption are necessary, though it deals almost exclusively with the work of policy design and implementation.

Designing Climate Solutions, by Hal Harvey with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, is a thoughtful and thorough discussion of policy options aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Harvey is particularly focused on discovering which specific policies are likely to have the biggest – and equally important, the quickest – impact on our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But he also pays close attention to the fine details of policy design which, if ignored, can cause the best-intentioned policies to miss their potentials.

One of the many strengths of the book is the wealth of graphics which present complex information in visually effective formats.

A political acceptable baseline

Though political wrangling is barely discussed, Harvey notes that “It goes without saying that a key consideration of any climate policy is whether it stands a chance of being enacted. A highly abating and perfectly designed policy is not worth pursuing if there is no chance it can be implemented.”

He takes as a starting point the target of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has received agreement in principle from nearly all countries: to reduce emissions enough by 2050 to give us at least a 50% chance of avoiding more than 2°C global warming. (We’ll return later to the question of the reasonableness of that goal.)

Throughout the book, then, different aspects of climate policy are evaluated for their relative contributions to the 2°C goal.

Working with a climate policy computer model which is discussed in detail in an appendix and which is available online, Harvey presents this framework: a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions of 2,253 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent from 2020 to 2050, but that must be reduced by 1,185 Gigatons.

The following chart presents what Harvey’s team believes is the realistic contribution of various sectors to the emission-reduction goal.

“Figure 3.4 – Policy contributions to meeting the 2°C global warming target.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 67)

The key point from this chart is that about 70% of the reductions are projected to come in three broad areas: changes to industrial production, conversion of electrical generation (“power sector”) to renewable energy, and cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions in line with their true social costs.

(The way things are categorized makes a big difference. For example, agriculture is slotted as a subset of the industrial sector, which boosts the relative importance of this sector for emissions-reduction potential.)

Harvey buttresses the argument by looking at the costs – or in many cases, cost-savings – of emissions-reduction policies. The following chart shows the relative costs of policies on the vertical dimension, and their relative contribution to emissions reduction on the horizontal dimension.

“Figure 3.2 – The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 59)

 

The data portrayed in this chart can guide policy in two important ways: policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

It may come as a surprise that the transportation and building sectors, in this framework, are responsible for only small slices of overall emission reductions.

Building Codes and Appliance Standards are pegged to contribute about 5% of the emission reductions, while a suite of transportation policies could together contribute about 7% of emission reductions.

A clear view of the overriding importance of reducing cumulative emissions by 2050 helps explain these seemingly small contributions – and why it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect these sectors.

To achieve climate policy goals it’s critical to reduce emissions quickly – and that’s hard to do in the building and transportation sectors. Building stock tends to last for generations, and major appliances typically last 10 years or more. Likewise car, truck and bus fleets tend to stay on the road for ten years or more. Thus the best building codes and the best standards for vehicle efficiency will have a very limited impact on carbon emissions over the next 15 years. By the same token, even the most rapid electrification possible of car and truck fleets won’t have full impact on emissions until the electric grid is generally decarbonized.

These are among the reasons that decarbonizing the electric grid, along with cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions, are so important to emissions reduction in the short term.

Meanwhile, though, it is also essential to get on with the slower work of upgrading buildings, appliances, transportation systems, and decarbonized agricultural and industrial processes. In the longer term, especially after 2050 when it will be essential to achieve zero net carbon emissions, even (relatively) minor contributions to emissions will be important. But as Harvey puts it, “There is no mopping up the last 10 percent of carbon emissions if we don’t eliminate the first 90 percent!”

International case studies

Harvey gets deep into the nuances of policy with an excellent discussion of the differences between carbon taxes and carbon caps. This helps readers to understand the value of hybrid approaches, and the importance in some countries of policies to limit “leakage”, whereby major industries simply shift production to jurisdictions without carbon prices or caps.

The many case studies – from the US, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries – illustrate policy designs that work especially well, or conversely, policies that have resulted in unintentional consequences which reduce their effectiveness.

These case studies also provide a reminder of the amount of hard work and dedication that mostly unsung bureaucrats have put in to the cause of mitigating climate disruption. As much as we may mourn that political leadership has been sorely lacking and that we appear to be losing the battle to forestall climate disaster, it seems undeniable that we would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the accomplishments of civil servants who have eked out small gains in their own sectors.

For example, the hard-won feed-in tariffs and other policies promoting renewable energies for electric generation haven’t yet resulted in a wholesale transformation of the grid – but they’ve resulted in an exponential drop in the cost per kilowatt of solar- and wind-generated power. Performance standards for many types of engines have resulted in significant improvements in energy efficiency. These improvements have so far mostly been offset by our economy’s furious push to sell more and bigger products – but these efficiency gains could nevertheless play a key role in a sane economic system of the future.

The 2° gamble

Although most of the book is devoted to details of particular policies, Harvey’s admirably lucid discussion of the urgency of the climate challenge makes clear that we need far greater commitment from the highest levels of political leadership.

He notes that the reality of climate action has been far less impressive than the high-minded rhetoric. With few exceptions the nations responsible for most of the carbon emissions have been woefully slow to act, which makes the challenge both more urgent and more difficult.

Harvey illustrates this point with the chart below. The black solid and dotted lines represent the necessary progress with emissions, if we had been smart enough to ensure emissions peaked in 2015. The red lines show what may now be the best-case scenario – an emissions peak in 2030 – and the much more drastic reductions that will then be required to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 2°C or less.

“Figure I-7. The longer the delay in peaking emissions, the harder it becomes to meet the same carbon budget.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 9)

We might well ask if a 50% likelihood of worldwide climate catastrophe is a prudent and reasonable policy aim, or certifiably bonkers. Still, a 50/50 chance of disaster is somewhat better than assured civilizational collapse, which is the destination of “business as usual.”

In any case, the political climate has changed considerably in the short time since Harvey and colleagues prepared Designing Climate Solutions. With the challenge to the political status quo embodied in the Green New Deal movement, it now seems plausible that some major carbon-emitting countries will enact more appropriate greenhouse-gas emission targets in the next few years. If that comes to pass, these new goals will need to be translated into effective policy, and the many lessons in Designing Climate Solutions will remain important.

What about fossil fuel subsidies?

In a book of such wide and ambitious scope, it is inevitable that some important facets are omitted or given short shrift.

The issues of deforestation and forest degradation are duly noted, but Harvey declines to delve into this subject by explaining that “The science, the policies, and the actors for reducing emissions from land use are very different from those for energy and industrial processes, and they deserve separate treatment from experts in land use policy.”

The issue of embodied carbon does not come up in the text. In assessing the replacement of fossil-powered vehicle fleets by electric vehicles, for example, is the embodied carbon inherent in current manufacturing processes a significant factor? Readers will need to search elsewhere for that answer.

Also noteworthy is the absence of any acknowledgement that economic growth itself may be a problem. For all the discussion of ways to transform industrial processes, there is no discussion of whether the scale of industrial output should also be reduced. In most countries today, of course, a civil servant who tries to promote degrowth will soon become an expert in unemployment, but that highlights the need for a wider and deeper look at economic fundamentals than is currently politically permissible.

The missing subject that seems most germane to the book’s central purpose, though, is the issue of subsidies for fossil fuels. Harvey does state in passing that “for many sectors and technologies, pricing is the key. Removing subsidies for fossil fuels is the first step – though still widely ignored.” Indeed, many countries have paid lip service to the need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but few have taken action along these lines.

But throughout Harvey’s extensive examination of pricing signals – e.g., feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, carbon caps, low-interest loans to renewable energy projects – there is no discussion of the degree to which existing fossil fuel subsidies continue to undercut the goals of climate policy and retard the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In my next post I’ll take up this subject with a look at how some governments, while tepidly supporting the transformation envisioned in the Paris Agreements, continue to safeguard their fossil fuel sectors through generous subsidies.


Illustration at top adapted from Designing Climate Solutions cover by David Ter Avanesyan.

The clean green pipeline machine – a free-market fairy tale

A review of Donald Gutstein’s The Big Stall

Also published at Resilience.org

In late 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ready to spell out his government’s “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change”. His pitch to Canadians went along these lines:

We recognize that climate change is a serious challenge and that we must transition to a new economy which dramatically cuts carbon emissions. To make this transition we need a strong economy and a united country. To have a strong economy we must allow our fossil fuel sector to continue to grow. And to keep our country united while we impose a modest price on carbon, we must also build new pipelines so that oil sands extraction can grow. That is why my government is proud to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions, by ensuring that the oil sands sector emits more carbon.

If you think that sounds absurd, then you’re likely not part of Canada’s financial, industrial, political or media elite, who for the most part applauded both the minimal carbon tax and the substantial oil sands expansions being pushed by Trudeau and by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

How did we get to a point where oil companies and governments are accepted as partners in devising climate action plans? And why did these climate action plans, decade after decade, permit fossil fuel companies to continue with business as usual, while carbon emissions grew steadily?

This is the subject of Donald Gutstein’s new book The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada. (James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, October 2018)

Though Gutstein takes a deep dive into Canadian politics, industry and academia, much of his story also concerns the series of international conferences which attempted, with very little success, to come up with strong international solutions for a climate crisis that knows no borders. Thus The Big Stall has relevance to climate change campaigners in many countries.

By the early 1990s, Gutstein says, the pervasive influence of neoliberal economic theory was leading to “a silent corporate takeover of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Neoliberal theory said that the “free market”, not government, should be relied on to solve the problem of climate change. That suited the oil industry, because the one thing they feared most was a hard-and-fast regulatory limit on carbon emissions.

An ad for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, perhaps? Not so – this is a still from the Alberta government’s tv ad series with the tagline “The TransMountain Pipeline is on  Canada’s side.” At keepcanadaworking.ca.

Lessons from Big Tobacco

In common with many other historians, Gutstein pays close attention to the strong links between public relations campaigns used by the tobacco industry and the similar strategies employed by Big Oil, particularly in sowing public confusion about the scientific consensus.

But as Gutstein’s book makes clear, the mainstream environmental movement failed to absorb a key lesson from the decades-long struggle to combat tobacco addiction: the industry whose products are the root of the problem should not be relied on to devise solutions.

Corporate participation in COP21 [Paris 2015] and in the conferences and talks leading up to and following it stands in stark contrast with the corporate role in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. There, tobacco interests are excluded, a fact which helps explain that treaty’s rapid progress in curtailing tobacco use. … At the climate talks, in sharp contrast, there is no conflict between Big Oil’s interests and public health and environmental interests. The corporate sector succeeded in making itself integral to the process.” (The Big Stall, page 158-159)

Fossil fuel interests assured their seat at the table in part by sponsoring the negotiations. In Paris in 2015, Gutstein writes,

Big Oil even partly financed the talks. France could have easily paid the C$255-million cost, but by allowing corporations to contribute 20 per cent, the host country encouraged the private sector to be part of the inner circle that was planning and organizing the event.” (The Big Stall, page 160)

The result was that in spite of inspiring rhetoric and lofty goals, the Paris Agreement contained no binding emissions reduction requirements. Instead countries were free to make their own reduction “pledges” with no penalties for missing their targets. This result was perfectly predictable, Gutstein says: “Paris was guided to its inevitable conclusion by the veiled hand of Big Oil and its corporate and political allies.” (The Big Stall, page 155)

He traces the pattern of corporate influence over climate negotiations back to the role of Canadian businessman Maurice Strong at the 1992 Rio Summit, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland at the eponymous Brundtland Commission in the 1980s.

Brundtland helped popularize the phrase “sustainable development” – a phrase which Gutstein says has come to mean little beyond sustaining the profits and asset values of major corporations. Thus fossil fuel interests can forge ahead with plans to extract even more nonrenewable resources while forestalling international action to reduce carbon emissions – and then sign declarations of support for “sustainable development”.

An ad for Wind Turbines? Flowers? Puppies? Kites? None of the above – this is a still from an Alberta government tv spot promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion, which is intended to double the amount of bitumen exported through the Port of Vancouver.

To tax or not to tax carbon

The story gets complicated, of course, because corporate figures do not always agree on the best ways to protect their bottom lines, and sometimes they respond to changing political winds in different ways.

Gutstein covers these shifts in corporate spin in great detail. Put simply, major fossil fuel interests went from denying that there was any scientific consensus on the reality or cause of global warming, to support for carbon-emissions trading markets, to support for a modest carbon tax.

In Canada in particular, a carbon tax was seen as a necessary concession to strong public concern that Canada wasn’t doing its part to mitigate global warming. Recognizing that the oil sands had a terrible reputation around the globe, oil interests hoped they could earn public favour by supporting a carbon tax. And politicians including Justin Trudeau pitched the carbon tax as an integral part of an indivisible package: we need to tax carbon to reduce emissions, while at the same time building new pipelines to ensure that oil sands extraction continues to grow.1

The common element in all of these fossil fuel corporation strategies is that there must not be any strict regulatory limit on carbon emissions – we must trust “the market”, in all its infinite wisdom, to arrive at emissions reductions. (When fossil fuel interests want subsidies, or need government help to get their products to market, then of course it is quite alright to deviate from free market principles.)

Gutstein makes clear that the level of carbon taxes advocated by fossil fuel interests is far too low to have a significant impact either on their profits or on national carbon emissions. Likewise, he says, the imposition of carbon taxes alone cannot substitute for the wide range of regulatory measures and incentives needed to make a rapid transition away from a fossil fuel economy. But he leaves unanswered another question: does he think carbon taxes could play an important role if they were set high enough to be effective, and were part of an appropriate package of other rules and incentives? In other words, if our political parties move beyond their fealty to neoliberal free-market ideology, should they enact effective carbon taxes?

The final corporate PR strategy that Gutstein discusses is the trend for fossil fuel companies to embrace the “market opportunity” of leading the transition to new energy systems. By publicizing their corporate efforts to buy wind turbines, study battery technology, or build heavily-subsidized prototypes of carbon-capture-and-sequestration plants, fossil fuel companies would like us to believe they are leading the way into a clean green future. But the important action happens behind the scenes, as fossil fuel companies continue to fight against any effective and compulsory limits on carbon emissions.

A clean green future? Major graphics in this article are stills from an Alberta-government funded tv ad series promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion. The ads do not show images of pipelines, tar sands open-pit mines, tailings ponds or refineries – just prosperous people and unspoiled environments. (At keepcanadaworking.ca.) Since the ads are paid for by a provincial government, and the TransMountain Pipeline is now owned by the federal government, fossil fuel industry adherence to “free market” principles can be flexible indeed.


FOOTNOTES

By the time The Big Stall was published, Trudeau’s grand bargain was in danger of failing on both fronts. Court cases and business decisions had delayed or cancelled most of the pending pipelines that would facilitate oil sands expansion. In the meantime the minimal carbon tax Trudeau has promised has been dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” by the new Premier of Ontario and the federal Conservative Party, and the scheduled tax is now vehemently opposed by provincial leaders in about half of the country.