A carbon bomb is a fossil fuel extraction project, such as a coal mine, that can cause over a gigatonne of CO₂ emissions during its lifetime. That’s a billion tonnes – more than twice the UK’s annual emissions from a single project.
In our latest research, my colleagues and I found that there are 425 of these carbon bombs worldwide. Collectively, they can unleash over 1,000 gigatonnes of CO₂ emissions, which far exceeds the world’s carbon budget for staying below 1.5°C of warming (around 500 gigatonnes in 2017) – the world’s agreed target for limiting climate change.
Even though it is now recognised, even by the conservative International Energy Agency, that no new fossil fuel projects must be built to avert catastrophic climate change, fossil fuel companies are working on setting off dozens of new carbon bombs while raking in record profits off the back of temporarily high fossil fuel prices.
For decades, and thanks to efforts by the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries with entrenched fossil fuel interests, UN climate talks have avoided the obvious solution: halting fossil fuel extraction and use. It seems this taboo was finally broken in Glasgow in November 2021, where phasing down coal burning was mentioned in the officially adopted text of COP26 for the first time. But a credible plan from governments to limit fossil fuel extraction is still missing.
This next vital step in climate policy might become more tractable by framing each new mine or oilfield as a potential carbon bomb. It’s not hard to figure out that if some countries set off their bombs, others won’t be able to, because carbon space in the atmosphere is limited. This simple insight into the physics of climate change has so far been ignored by world leaders.
The carbon bombs concept helps us understand that rich countries like Germany digging lignite or Canada cooking tar sands to extract some of the world’s dirtiest oil takes up carbon space which means Saudi oil and Qatari gas will have to stay in the ground. Roughly 80% of all carbon bombs are concentrated in just 12 countries: China, US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Qatar, Canada, Iraq, India, Brazil, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Any one of these could convene talks on defusing carbon bombs.
Or perhaps another government that has similar projects under its belt, say Germany, Norway, Colombia or the UK, which is poised to increase drilling for gas in the North Sea. A fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, akin to the cold war nuclear non-proliferation treaty which aimed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, could bind national commitments in a global agreement.
The fuses not yet lit
When we compiled our list of carbon bombs to understand the global picture of fossil fuel extraction, we learned that 40% of these projects hadn’t started yet. This means that there is still time to scare away investors of new carbon bombs through campaigning and lawsuits.
Because these projects are so huge, they take years to prepare and operate on a timescale of decades – and their breakeven points, where they start generating a profit, invariably lie many years in the future.
For the climate movement, these huge, slow-moving targets are a constructive challenge which offer many opportunities for intervention, as recent sanctions against Russia have made clear: some Russian carbon bombs look unlikely to proceed without support from other countries.
Thanks to the interconnectedness of the fossil fuel industry globally, very few carbon bombs can go ahead without any foreign involvement, be it through finance, insurance or equipment manufactured abroad.
While the term “carbon bomb” sounds frightening, it bears great potential for transforming the way people look at the effort to mitigate climate change. The call to “reduce emissions” – a mantra that’s been repeated by governments for the past 30 years – isn’t sparking an emergency response on par with the challenge of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, talking about carbon bombs makes no secret of the fact that global heating kills people, just as bombs do.
Accepting industry money risks distorting research and allowing polluting firms to greenwash their reputations, says Zak Coleman. However before A fossil fuel divestment ‘how-to’, it is advisable not to overlook or ignore what has been said before now.
Fossil fuel research ties undermine universities’ climate change response
I became the University of Cambridge’s students’ union undergraduate president in the wake of the university’s historic decision to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. I felt hopeful. The university was waking up to the urgent need to combat the climate crisis. It finally understood the damaging consequences of lending its reputational legitimacy to the industry driving this emergency.
Or so I thought.
Working at the students’ union, I became increasingly aware that the university’s involvement with fossil fuel companies extended far beyond its investments. The BP Institute and the professorship of complex physical systems sponsored by offshore drilling company Schlumberger are just two of the countless industry links that Cambridge retains. Everywhere I looked, I saw the university inviting the very same companies it had just condemned as unconscionable investments to be senior partners in its core research activities.
This felt like an enormous betrayal. Universities are supposed to be committed to supporting young people and our futures. But here was my university collaborating extensively with the companies destroying that future.
But it’s not just the hypocrisy that concerns me. Universities’ research partnerships with the fossil fuel industry also undermine their ability to effectively address the climate emergency.
Let’s be clear. Industry executives have known about the devastating climate impacts of their business for more than 50 years. Instead of acting on the science, however, they spent millions of pounds spreading climate disinformation and expanded their fossil fuel operations. They continue to engage in extensive anti-climate political lobbying and resolutely focus the overwhelming majority of their business on fossil fuels, including building new infrastructure and exploring for new reserves. Meanwhile, the world’s top scientists and energy experts are clear that no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and avoid runaway climate breakdown.
In contrast, universities like Cambridge are respected globally for upholding the highest standards of scientific integrity and intellectual rigour. Like it or not, partnerships between such higher education institutions and companies that have spent decades ignoring, silencing and discrediting these universities’ very own scientists are a PR gift for the fossil fuel industry. They allow these firms to misrepresent themselves as reformed leaders of the green transition. They send a clear message to governments, policymakers and wider civil society: if universities like Cambridge deem these companies serious on climate-related issues, why shouldn’t we? Ultimately, they help to stall desperately overdue political action to address the climate emergency.
Accepting funding from the fossil fuel industry also raises serious questions about researchers’ ability to conduct truly independent climate-related research. Academics must be free to determine their own research agendas, speak their minds and publish their findings without fear of censorship, reprisal or the denial of funding for future projects. Yet numerous studies demonstrate that industry funding skews research agendas and outcomes in directions favourable to industry interests, and that common safeguarding measures are often inadequate mitigation. This is why, for decades, research institutions have rejected tobacco industry funding for public health research. The same principle must be extended to fossil fuel funding of climate-related research. Independent climate research is just too important to tolerate such risks.
Governments and universities now have a profound responsibility to provide alternatives to industry funding. This is especially true for our wealthiest universities, which frequently accept the most fossil fuel research funding. Indeed, despite being Europe’s wealthiest university, Cambridge accepted more from oil companies between 2017 and 2021than all other UK universities bar one – Imperial College London.
Such universities have large, well-established fundraising departments capable of raising phenomenal sums. Philanthropic giving to US universities rose by 6.9 per cent in 2021 alone, topping $52 billion (£40 billion). The notion that there are no alternatives to fossil fuel industry funding is dangerously false.
Last month, more than 500 leading academics signed an open letter calling for universities to cut research ties with the fossil fuel industry. Among those supporting the letter, which is still open for signatures, are Nobel Prize winners; the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson; and numerous scientists on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
We know the fossil fuel industry will continue to ignore the calls of these distinguished climate experts. But we expect better from our universities. Our planet is in ecological cardiac arrest, yet it is the fossil fuel industry that our universities are helping keep on life support. It is long past time for this to end.
Zak Coleman is undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students’ Union. Twitter: @SU_PresidentUG
Kuwait Times‘ Shakir Reshamwala tells us that Many in Kuwait are willing to pay a fee for single-use plastic bags whilst others call for a complete ban on plastic or switch to paper bags
Many in Kuwait willing to pay a fee for single-use plastic bags
KUWAIT: Plastic bags seem to be everywhere – in parks, sewers, deserts, forests, oceans, and lately, in the news, after authorities in Dubai announced they are ending the free distribution of single-use plastic bags in a drive towards more sustainable practices. “In line with enhancing environmental sustainability and encouraging individuals to reduce the excessive use of plastics, the Executive Council of Dubai has approved the policy to limit single-use bags by imposing a tariff of 25 fils (about $0.07) on single-use bags,” the authorities said. The decision will come into force at the start of July in shops, restaurants, pharmacies and for home deliveries.
In Kuwait, there are no restrictions on single-use plastic bags, and despite attempts by supermarkets to promote reusable bags, there aren’t many takers due to their relatively high cost and the freely available plastic bags. It is common for baggers at supermarkets to place each item in separate bags, and it is not uncommon to see shoppers shamelessly grab a bunch of extra bags at checkout counters.
Nevertheless, people are waking up to the threat these plastic bags pose to the environment. In an online survey conducted by Kuwait Times whether Kuwait should also charge for single-use plastic bags, a majority of respondents voted in favor of such a move. Many however pointed out they do reuse them as garbage bags. Others called on authorities to go a step further and ban plastic bags altogether, expressing skepticism whether a token charge will deter their usage.
“There is a charge on plastic bags worldwide. Why not in Kuwait too?” one user responded. “Sell reusable canvas bags at checkouts. I’m tired of seeing a sea of plastic everywhere I go,” said another. Other respondents to the survey called for using paper bags instead, while some pointed out that waste in Kuwait needs to be segregated to make recycling easier.
Those against charging for plastic bags had their own reasons. “Ban plastic bags but use recyclable alternatives. Everything here is already expensive and overpriced. We consumers are suffering, so adding even a little more to the equation makes no sense,” commented a user. “We use those bags for the trash, so let them be free,” wrote another.
Explaining their decision, the authorities in Dubai vowed that this is the first step of a strategy planned over several stages, aimed at completely banning single-use plastic bags within two years. “With sustainability becoming a global priority, changing the behavior of the community to reduce the environmental footprint of individuals is crucial to preserve natural resources and environmental habitats,” the authorities said. In March 2020, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, announced its “new environmental policy” aiming to eliminate single-use plastics by 2021 – but regulations have yet to be applied.
A report by wildlife group WWF last week warned plastic has infiltrated all parts of the ocean and is now found “in the smallest plankton up to the largest whale”, calling for urgent efforts to create an international treaty on plastics. According to some estimates, between 19 and 23 million tons of plastic waste is washed into the world’s waterways every year, the WWF report said. In one 2021 study, 386 fish species were found to have ingested plastic, out of 555 tested. Separate research, looking at the major commercially fished species, found up to 30 percent of cod in a sample caught in the North Sea had microplastics in their stomach.
To be fair, authorities in Kuwait are not totally oblivious to the plastic problem. In a first step, the Environment Public Authority last year distributed one million ecofriendly bags to cooperative societies in all the governorates, part of a campaign to raise public awareness about environment protection and minimize the use of plastic bags. The ecobags are made of organic materials that disintegrate in hot water without any harmful effects on the air, soil or water. Each ecobag is strong enough to carry up to 10 kg – although the weight of expectations over this move is seemingly a lot higher.
Wind and solar are now as cheap as the cheapest fossil fuel power, if not cheaper. And these price comparisons typically do not include the costs of climate change, air pollution, and price variability from fossil fuels. Those costs represent an enormous subsidy for fossil fuels and, if you include them, fossil fuels become far more expensive than renewable energy. Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist who studies both the science and politics of climate change, explains how greed and politics are slowing the switch to renewable energy.
The image above is a Photo by Dan Meyers/Unsplash
January 17, 2022
It is (with apologies to Charles Dickens) the best of times; it is the worst of times.
Thanks to fossil fuels, billions of people in 2022 enjoy lives of wealth, comfort, and material possessions unimaginable before the industrial revolution.
But fossil fuels have their dark side. You might think you understand that, but it’s likely fossil fuels are even worse for the world than you think. Let’s start with climate change. Contrary to what you might hear listening to Fox News, the scientific understanding of climate change is good and it is progressing at exactly the rate predicted decades ago by Exxon.
What you probably don’t realize is how massive these changes may be. In the depths of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the Earth was only 6 degrees Celsius colder than it is today. That world—with thousands of feet of ice sitting over much of North America, sea level 300 feet lower, and completely different ecosystems—would be unrecognizable to those living on today’s Earth.
This helps us put predictions of future warming into context. The chart below shows predictions for the twenty-first century, but instead of units of temperature, I have plotted units of ice ages, where one ice age unit equals 6 degrees Celsius. Business-as-usual emissions gives us about 3 degrees Celsius of warming in 2100—about half of one ice-age unit. Given how much the Earth has changed since the last ice age, 3 degrees Celsius of warming may well remake the planet, leading to an Earth in 2100 as unrecognizable to us today as the world of the last ice age.
The earth is presently about 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, so we have already warmed about 17 percent of an ice age, and the impacts are clear. For example, there is widespread agreement in the scientific community that climate change contributed to the unprecedented rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and that the massive heatwave in the Pacific Northwest last year could not have occurred without global warming.
But fossil fuels are even worse than that. As commodities whose price is set on the world market, international politics can cause the price to whipsaw. Oil price spikes associated with Middle East conflicts, oil embargoes, and other political events have often been followed by painful economic recessions. In 2020, the price of oil dropped significantly because of the coronavirus pandemic combined with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. This laid waste to the US oil industry, bankrupted oil producers, and increased unemployment.
As a consequence, US foreign policy over the last 70 years has been hyper focused on maintaining stability in the world energy market. This has led the United States, for example, to invade Iraq twice, first in 1990 and then again in 2003, starting wars that cost the United States trillions of dollars; hundreds of thousands of lives of people of many nationalities were lost.
Putting everything together, one conclusion is clear: Fossil fuels are terrible. While many people in 2022 are living much better lives because of fossil fuels, people in 2100 will be much worse off because of them.
The story doesn’t end there. The world needs power. People need it so much, in fact, that as bad as fossil fuels are, people would continue to use them if there were no alternatives. But we do have an alternative: renewable energy. This means primarily wind and solar energy, although other energy sources (e.g., geothermal) will also play a role. Non-renewable energy sources such as nuclear could provide another source of climate-safe energy.
The amount of renewable energy available is almost unfathomable. Human society consumes about 15 terawatts of power. Sunlight falling on the earth provides more than 100,000 terawatts, enough to power 7,000 human civilizations. There are obviously issues with the intermittency of solar and wind. The sun is not always shining everywhere, not at night nor when it is cloudy. Similarly, the wind does not always blow.RELATED:Climate scientist: “It’s already worse than what I imagined”
However, a hugeamount of research has gone into how to build a reliable energy system that relies predominantly on intermittent renewable energy. First, wind and solar power tend to be uncorrelated, so a system combining these energy sources will have more consistent power than a system that is solar- or wind-only. Thus, diversifying your energy portfolio solves a lot of the intermittency problems.
Second, we need to be able to transport power. While the sun may not be shining or the wind blowing where you are, the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing somewhere. By enhancing our electrical grids, power can be shifted regionally from where it’s generated to where it’s needed, further reducing the impact of intermittency of solar and wind power.
Third, intermittency becomes an even smaller problem if part of the energy mix is dispatchable climate-safe energy. This means power sources that are available at any time and can be dispatched at the request of electric grid operators, including always-on energy sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, nuclear, or natural gas with carbon capture.
Fourth, we need demand response. At times when supply simply cannot keep up with demand, we need to be able to reduce demand. This can be as simple as asking large industrial consumers to reduce their consumption. Or utilities can change consumption patterns by making power cheaper when it’s abundant and more expensive at times when it’s not. Smart appliances in homes can automatically delay running the dishwasher or drying clothes for a few hours until the utility signals that the supply of power is tight; in return for this, consumers get a break on their electricity bill.
The upshot of this is that we can largely run our economy on renewable energy. There are some edge cases where decarbonization might be hard (e.g., international airline flights), but this should not stop us from gathering the low-hanging fruit.
This leads me to the other piece of misinformation you’ll often hear: A renewable energy grid will be expensive.
There was a time when that was the case, but today the picture is quite different. Wind and solar are now as cheap as the cheapest fossil fuel power, if not cheaper. And these price comparisons typically do not include the costs of climate change, air pollution, and price variability from fossil fuels. Those costs represent an enormous subsidy for fossil fuels and, if you include them, fossil fuels become far more expensive than renewable energy.
In response to this, the market is decisively moving away from fossil fuels. In Texas, for example, 95 percent of the energy connections to the electrical grid planned for the next four years are for renewable energy (60 percent solar, 16 percent wind, 18 percent battery).
It’s great news that our electricity system is already switching over to renewable energy. But it’s not happening fast enough. On our present trajectory, we will continue to use fossil fuels well into this century, leading to warming of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, well above the target that the world has agreed upon, 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Given that our present warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius is already causing severe and expensive impacts, 3 degrees Celsius would be a planetary disaster.
The transition has been sluggish because the price of fossil fuels is kept artificially low. Consumers and businesses do not pay the full cost of the climate, health, and other related costs of fossil fuel use. This could be largely solved by making consumers pay the full cost of their energy through a carbon tax or cap and trade system. If society had to pay the full costs of energy, fossil fuels would quickly disappear from the energy market.
The climate problem is therefore quite simple: Fossil fuels are terrible for humanity, and we can switch at relatively low cost to an economy largely powered by renewable energy. So why aren’t we doing that?
The blame, in my view, lies with economists. Not all economists, mind you, but a group of influential thinkers in the mid-20th century who pushed governments towards implementing an extreme view of free markets. They also said that the social responsibility of corporations was to make as much money as possible. One of the most influential of these thinkers, Milton Friedman, called this the Friedman Doctrine. It was immortalized by Oliver Stone in the movie Wall Street, when one of the main characters proudly declares, “Greed is good!”
Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States saw government oversight shrink while corporations became laser-focused on profits. This deregulation effort delivered benefits like cheaper airline tickets for consumers. But the lack of government oversight combined with the imperative to make profits as large as possible also resulted in some terrible outcomes. These include climate change and the skyrocketing price of lifesaving drugs like insulin.
The fundamental problem is that free markets can’t solve environmental problems. Most environmental problems are externalities, or costs imposed on people who are not part of the transaction. Climate change is a classic externality—if you consume a gallon of gas or a kilowatt of electricity, the resulting carbon dioxide causes climate change everywhere, thereby imposing costs on everyone in the world. The costs of this climate change are not paid by the consumer, so this is a hidden subsidy of fossil fuels.
To corporations, externalities are terrific! If the goal of a corporation is to make as much money as possible, then it wants to push as many of the costs onto society as possible, which increases corporate profit. Because externalities benefit corporations, solving problems that arise from them, like climate change, requires government regulation. If the government is unwilling to regulate in some fashion, then climate change will never be fixed.
Fossil fuel corporations have also tried to stifle regulation by spending millions of dollars over the last few decades casting doubt on the science of climate change, despite their own researchers accurately assessing the risk. This closely paralleled what tobacco corporations did decades earlier. This shows the true problem with our version of free-market, profit-maximizing economics: Today’s economy does not create wealth that makes everyone better off, but rather generates enormous benefits for corporations while generating few benefits or even net harms for everyone else.
In the end, climate change is not a scientific or technical problem. The scientific community understands how fossil fuels cause climate change, and technology to solve the problem exists. Rather, climate change is a political problem. We need to return to the 1970s, a time when Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly passed legislation forming the EPA. We need to understand that a world in which corporations care only about maximizing profits demands that the government protect the interest of the people.
Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted by burning fossil fuels for energy today will only be removed from the atmosphere by natural sinks – like forests and the ocean – in the next 300 to 1,000 years. That means the climate benefits of transitioning to clean energy become apparent on far longer timescales than political term limits and election cycles. A US study, for example, found that deep cuts to emissions from the energy sector will not result in climate cooling until after 2100.
The costs of mitigating climate change outweigh the immediate benefits to the climate. Politicians seeking recognition for their actions at climate change conferences like COP26 in Glasgow have little motive to deliver policies which slash emissions quickly. But there is a large, short-term benefit to eradicating fossil fuels for global health.
The same fossil fuels producing the greenhouse gases warming the Earth’s atmosphere also form large quantities of air pollutants. The pollutants most hazardous to health are small particles which can penetrate deep into the lungs. These particles have diameters of no more than 2.5 micrometers, so are called PM2.5. At least 800 of these particles could fit end-to-end on the head of a pin. These fall out of the air when it rains, so they persist in the atmosphere for a much shorter time (just a few days) than CO₂.
In a study we published earlier in 2021 in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University, we estimated that exposure to air pollution from using fossil fuels globally accounts for one in five premature deaths. Our results suggest that at least 8.7 million early adult deaths could have been avoided in a single year if countries had already abandoned fossil fuels. This is equivalent to the population of Greater London.
The health benefits of decarbonisation
Our estimate of premature deaths far exceeds that of other researchers, as we used a model that simulates the sources and fate of air pollution to calculate its abundance on a much finer scale. This gives a more accurate picture of the concentrations of air pollution breathed in by people in urban areas. We then used this to estimate excess deaths using the most up-to-date health studies, which have found that air pollution is deadlier than previously assumed.
The most common causes of premature death from air pollution exposure are heart disease and lung cancer, but researchers routinely report additional illnesses. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published much stricter health guidelines for air quality than it last recommended in 2005 based on substantial evidence that exposure to air pollution is even worse for public health than scientists had imagined.
Our study is probably an underestimate of the possible public health benefits of abandoning fossil fuels. We only accounted for one type of pollution, PM2.5, which arises from burning fossil fuels. A range of air pollutants form as byproducts in all other steps of the fossil fuel supply chain: from finding, extracting and processing fossil fuels, to storing and transporting them.
One example is formaldehyde gas, which is emitted during petroleum refining and flaring of natural gas. Formaldehyde reacts to form ozone in the lower atmosphere, where it is toxic and can exacerbate asthma symptoms.
We also only focused on adults. The relationship between air pollution and poor health in children isn’t completely understood, but studies so far have shown that exposure to air pollution stunts growth and impedes brain and lung development in children. In a landmark case in 2020, air pollution was directly attributed to the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl in London.
The health benefits of transitioning to clean energy are substantial and can emerge quickly. They offer a tantalising opportunity for politicians to deliver immediate improvements in the lives of their voters.
This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world. Amid a rising tide of climate news and stories, The Conversation is here to clear the air and make sure you get information you can trust. More.
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