Why banning the fossil fuel industry from climate change negotiations may not be necessary

  • 01/10/2016

- Pranav Prakash, Young India Fellowship  

 

This past year has witnessed some remarkable success in the global battle against climate change, particularly in comparison to the first half of the decade which began with the spillover of the infamous ‘climategate’ and swiftly followed with a measurable turn towards a more skeptical position on global warming, at least partly due to the disappointing Copenhagen conference of 2009. The fossil fuel industry now seems poised for an inevitable burial, hopefully never to be dug up again. After years of unmitigated damage to the environment, relentless protests by climate change activists and civil society organizations from around the world finally seemed to have been afforded the gravitas the situation deserves, when a landmark agreement was forged at the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of Parties (COP 21) at Paris last year, pledging to move away from fossil fuels.

 

Over 175 nations have signed the Paris agreement since, resulting in the largest number of countries to have ever signed an international agreement on a single day, when the document was opened for signing on April 22, earlier this year.

 

With the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describing the deal, at Paris, as ambitious and balanced, the urgency of this historic collective global action seems to have been prompted by the record-breaking rise in temperatures and CO2 levels; 2016 is estimated to surpass the global average heat record that, even more distressingly, was set just last year and CO2 levels have crossed the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold,  almost twice the pre-industrial level.

 

 Large protests that have been characteristic of at least the last three COP conferences, including COP 20 at Lima and COP 19 at Warsaw, called for a ban on the fossil fuel industry from climate change negotiations. As ironic as it might seem to the uninitiated, the fossil fuel industry was reported to have been among the biggest sponsors for the conferences at Poland and Paris. For the French conference, public money didn’t suffice to finance the conference and the result was that corporations were invited to pitch in; and pitch, they did - about  €40 million came from the private sector which owned coal-fired plants, investments in oil sands exploration and shale gas fracking .  Described brilliantly by May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, an international climate campaign, “when it comes to the UN Climate Talks, the fossil fuel companies aren’t just looking for a seat at the table, they’re looking to burn the table down. Until we can challenge their political power, we won’t see real climate progress.”

 

 While the campaigns to prevent fossil fuel companies from participating in the conferences haven’t ultimately succeeded and while there doesn’t yet exist legislation preventing their participation in climate negotiations, the upcoming COP 22 in Morocco seems to carry a bit more promise than its predecessors.

 

 Having relied on fossil fuels to meet most of its domestic energy demand, Morocco sealed its presence as a regional climate leader by choosing to successfully cut all subsidies on fuel in 2015. This move has not only bolstered renewable energy investment but has also improved government expenditure on other sectors such as education, proving that the economy doesn’t have to take a backseat for climate change adaptation to work. 

 

 The misconception that the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies will hurt the poor has been disproved by an IMF study that indicated that it is the  wealthiest 20 percent of the population that gets a disproportionate 43 percent of the benefit from fossil fuel subsidies globally, while the poorest 20 percent gets only 7 percent. In fact, the poorest 60 percent of the population still doesn't get as much benefit as the wealthiest.

 

Despite having concluded that fossil fuel subsidisation performs poorly, both as economic policy as well as environment policy, the world’s fossil fuel subsidies amount to upwards of $500 billion. Reforms are challenging, especially in developing countries where the developmental needs of vulnerable group must be taken into account.

 

 In July, at the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), the leaders of developing Pacific nations undertook the task of preparing the first international treaty with binding targets on renewable energy and a ban on the expansion of coal mines, along with the removal of subsidies for fossil fuel mining and consumption. While it is common knowledge that rising sea levels cause the most damage to these island nations, that which is equally worthy of praise is how landmark policy initiatives come from countries that are still finding the ropes of sustainable development.

 

 Closer to home, India just ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement, on the auspicious birth anniversary of Gandhi and our climate leadership has been lauded by environmentalists worldwide. Leading by example, developing nations have risen to the occasion and brought the world a step closer to realizing the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. It’s up to the developed world, now, to match. 

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