Despite the clean technology of the past decade, we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels more than ever before
The industrial revolution that kick-started the human impact on the climate was driven by just such a feedback. The steam engine enabled us to drain coal mines, providing access to more coal that could power more steam engines capable of extracting yet more coal. That led to better technologies and materials that eventually helped ramp up production of oil as well. But oil didn’t displace coal, it helped us mine it more effectively and stimulated more technologies that raised energy demand overall. So coal use kept rising too – and oil use in turn kept increasing as cleaner gas, nuclear and hydro came on stream, helping power the digital age, which unlocked more advanced technologies capable of opening up harder-to-read fossil-fuel reserves.
Seen as a technology-driven feedback loop, it is not surprising that nothing has yet tamed the global emissions curve, because so far nothing has cut off its food supply: fossil fuels. Indeed, though our governments now subsidise clean-power sources and efficient cars and buildings – and encourage us all to use less energy – they are continuing to undermine all that by ripping as much oil, coal and gas out of the ground as possible. And if their own green policies mean there isn’t a market for these fuels at home, then no matter: they can just be exported instead.
This extraordinary double-think is everywhere to be seen. Take the US. Obama boasts that American emissions are now falling due to rising auto efficiency standards and gas displacing dirtier coal in the energy mix. But the US is extracting carbon and flowing it into the global energy system faster than ever before. Its gas boom has simply allowed it to export more of the coal to other countries such as China – which of course uses it partly to produce goods for US markets. Not happy with increasing US carbon extraction, Obama is also set to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline that will enable Canada to flood the global markets with crude produced from dirty tar sands. So much for carbon cuts.
Or take Australia, which in the same year introduced a carbon tax and started debating plans for a series of “mega-mines” that would massively increase its coal exports, helping build confidence among the companies and governments planning no fewer than 1,200 new coal-fired power stations around the world. Even the UK, with its world-leading carbon targets, gives tax-breaks to encourage oil and gas recovery and has been growing its total carbon footprint by relying ever more on Chinese factories – and therefore indirectly its reliance on American and Australian coal. And not just that. Although it rarely gets commented on, Britain – along with other supposedly green nations such as Germany –regularly begs Saudi Arabia and the other Opec nations to produce not less oil, but more. As journalist George Monbiot once put it, nations are trying simultaneously to “reduce demand for fossil fuels and increase supply”.
It is not just governments that are in near-universal denial about what needs to happen to the fossil fuel sector. Blithely ignoring the fact that there is already far more accessible fuel than can be safely burned, pension fund managers and other investors are allowing listed fossil fuel companies to spend the best part of $1tn a year (comparable to the US defence budget, or more than $100 for every person on the planet) to find and develop yet more reserves.
Posted on Friday, May 17th 2013