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Energy and ecological transition: the need, the utopia and the will

The "climate challenge" and the "energy transition" remain eminently political projects whose success depends almost entirely on the people's conscience and the political will of 200 States.

José Luís Fiori
19 November 2020
Extinction Rebellion activists covered in black ink during a protest in front of Shell's corporate offices demanding an end to fossil fuel extraction
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WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

The traditional utopias - classical and modern - had one thing in common: they proposed a certain vision of the end of history, an ideal society. The ecological utopia says that what's important is that history continues to create the conditions for the following generations to continue having their utopias.

Marques, V. S. In the ecological utopia, what's important is that history continues. Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, January 18, 2016

The twenty-first-century debate on the low-carbon "energy transition" is based on three hypotheses formulated in the last century: i) the possibility that the world's oil reserves will be exhausted in a few decades; ii) the great responsibility of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) for climate change and ecological deterioration in the twentieth century; and finally, iii) the possibility of "sustainable development" through renewable and clean energies, within the regime of capitalist production, built by the collective will of individuals and nations.

The first time the end of the "oil age" was predicted was in 1874 when the Pennsylvania government warned Americans that they would only have oil to guarantee kerosene lighting for their big cities for another four years. Needless to say, this forecast was surpassed by the facts, and today the United States' oil reserves are estimated at 68.9 billion barrels and daily production of around 17 million barrels. Even so, at the beginning of the 1970s, the Club of Rome again predicted the final exhaustion of the world's oil reserves in a maximum period of 20 to 30 years, in its famous report "The Limits to Growth," transformed into a kind of modern Malthusian bible that has been systematically denied by the facts.

Even so, today, when one looks back with the perspective of the past, one can better understand the pessimism of the famous report of the Club of Rome of 1972, at the beginning of the so-called "crisis of American hegemony," marked by the end of the "dollar pattern," due to the explosion of oil prices, to the high-interest rates and to the final crisis of the "Keynesian developmentalism" that followed the Second World War.

Later, in 1996, geologists Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere used the technique of extrapolation of finite resources - the Huppert Curve - to calculate that the volume of world reserves was 850 billion barrels and that 50% of the world's available oil would have been extracted in the same decade of the 1970s; therefore, only another 150 billion barrels would remain undiscovered in the entire planet. This projection was later corrected, and the deadline was moved to 2050/2060, but to date, all these apocalyptic predictions have been systematically denied and overtaken by events. More than that, since the 1970s, world oil reserves have not stopped growing, and today are estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels. However, world consumption fluctuates between 90 and 100 billion b/d at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Furthermore, technological advances in "alternative energies" have been compensated by simultaneous technological advances in the oil and gas industry. Contrary to what the Club of Rome predicted, oil prices have not systematically increased and have fluctuated over the past 50 years.

In parallel and completely independently, the United Nations Conference on the Environment was held in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden, bringing together 113 countries and more than 400 governmental and non-governmental organizations to discuss the new global challenge of ecological destruction and environmental change. At that meeting, water, world desertification, and the use of pesticides in agriculture were discussed, and the challenge of climate change was discussed for the first time. There was no consensus or final agreement, due to the opposition, especially at that time, of the richest and most developed countries.

Despite the apparent international consensus, the data indicates that humanity is far from containing global warming and that, on the contrary, the situation has worsened in the last three years.

However, the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Environment, adopted on June 6, 1972, ended up becoming the original seed from which the idea, the project, and the utopia of a new type of development were born, leaving behind the predatory model of the original industrializations. The idea of "sustainable development" only took on a more refined form in the 1980s, through the Brundtland Report (the name of the Norwegian prime minister who headed the United Nations commission created in 1983, and who was responsible for drafting the final document) and the Montreal Protocol, drawn up by the UN World Commission on the Environment, published in 1987 and signed by 150 countries.

Five years later, these same ideas were taken up and deepened by a new United Nations Conference, ECO-92, held in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the problems of biodiversity and climate change associated with the alternative development project, enshrined in Agenda 21, were discussed and approved by 179 countries. On the same occasion, the "Earth Charter" was launched, approved by a parallel forum of non-governmental organizations. And so it was that, shortly after the end of the Cold War, the new utopia of "sustainable development" was consecrated, when the liberal-cosmopolitan utopias of globalization and humanitarianism were victoriously consolidated, following the Gulf War.

Subsequently, several annual meetings were held on ecology and climate change, notably those held in Kyoto in 1997; Johannesburg in 2002; and Rio de Janeiro in 2002 and 2012, culminating in the Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries, in 2015. This agreement proposes objectives and defines more precise targets for reducing greenhouse gases to contain or slow down the process of global warming. It was in this last period, and particularly after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, that the "sustainable development" agenda was crossed and combined definitively with the "energy transition" agenda since it was proven that fossil fuels were responsible for more than 50% of gas emissions and their "cascading effect" on other natural resources.

Thus, the "sustainable development" project was definitely associated with the low-carbon "energy transition" proposal and the ethical project of building a new economy. Despite the apparent international consensus, all the data indicates that humanity is far from containing global warming. On the contrary, the situation has worsened in the last three years, reaching a record of 36.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2019. Here's a good question: how to explain this contradiction between the apparent international "ecological consensus" and the growing uncontrolled ecological and climatic situation on the planet?

Utopias will always be utopias, while the collective political will advance, albeit slowly, tortuously, and imperfectly.

First, it is not easy to dismantle a global infrastructure around the world designed to produce and distribute the fuel that has driven the economic system and the lives of the citizens of Earth for more than 100 years. Moreover, it should be made clear that even today, the "climate challenge" and the "energy transition" remain eminently political projects, whose success depends almost entirely on the conscience of the people and the political will of 200 nation-states, which are independent and organized within a fully hierarchical inter-state system, from the point of view of their power and wealth. Within this system, it must be taken into account that more than 50% of the planet's greenhouse gases are emitted by no more than five or six countries and by no more than 20 large multinational companies. Added to this is the fact that these five or six countries are among the rich and powerful on the planet, including China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, and Germany; and that the 20 largest companies responsible for about 33% of the world's carbon emissions are large public and private oil companies.

It is understood, on the other hand, that the countries of the international system that have made the most progress in controlling gas emissions and advancing their "ecological transition" are exactly Sweden, Switzerland, and Norway, that is, three small countries whose combined population is less than that of the city of São Paulo. With this, it is possible to understand better why those mainly responsible for the world's ecological and climate problems are also its main beneficiaries and those who resist the establishment of climate goals, as is the case in the United States, particularly during the government of Donald Trump, who has just abandoned the Paris Agreement after spending four years torpedoing all previous government decisions favorable to the energy transition agenda. But even within the European Union, the apparent leader of the supporters of the changes, it is difficult to reach a consensus between its richest countries and its huge swath, which is poorer and does not have the resources to replace its productive structure and energy infrastructure.

In the opposite direction, it is worth noting the change in China's position in recent years, and in particular, its accelerated process of "electrification" of its car fleet. And more recently, the defeat of Donald Trump and the election of a new US president, Joe Biden, who proposes to reduce US carbon gas emissions, and who has promised to allocate $2 trillion over the next four years to create new jobs and clean industries, and for the creation of new low-carbon infrastructure. It is not impossible that the "green issue" could become a negotiation point and diplomatic convergence of the new government with China.

Despite this, it cannot be forgotten that the new president's term is only four years and that his government and his green agenda must face resistance and fierce opposition from the U.S. Senate. Even so, this should be the main change in US foreign policy in 2021, and it should be added to the announcement, together with the world's main development banks, that they will no longer finance projects that involve the use of coal. It is a good time to remember with optimism that utopias will always be utopias while the collective political will advances, albeit slowly, tortuously, and imperfectly.


Notes

1] The Club of Rome, created in 1968 by the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei and the Scottish scientist Alexander King, was a group of "illustrious" people who met periodically - like the Davos Economic Forum - to discuss the agenda of the great future problems of humanity, emphasizing the environment, the climate and the natural limits of economic growth. He became famous precisely with the publication of his report, “The Limits to Growth,” prepared by a team of technicians from MIT hired by the Club of Rome and directed by Dana Meadows. This report dealt with various topics such as the environment, energy, pollution, growth, sanitation, etc. and more than 30 million copies were sold in 30 different languages, popularizing the ancient Malthusian theses on the natural and population limits of economic growth

2] The "ethical urgency" of the issue of ecological transition explains the fact that it has been the subject of a papal encyclical devoted exclusively to "care of the common house": "There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the coming years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, by replacing the use of fossil fuels and by developing renewable energy sources" (Pope Francis, Laudato si', on the care of the common house, p. 24)

3] "The only force that appears to be able to alter this picture in the foreseeable future is a strong policy that internalizes the substantial external environmental and social costs of fossil fuels, especially climate change" (Connor, A. P.; Cleveland, C.J. "U.S. Energy Transitions 1780-2010, energies, 2014, p. 7981. Available at: <www.mdpi.com/journal/energiesd>)

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