The Burning Question: A Review

Taking down the fossil fuel industry with balloons and bubbles.

One argument that caught my eye quite early on in this book is our attitude to efficiency as we aim for a transition to a low-carbon society.

There are two parts to this:

1. History reveals that as each new energy source is discovered, previous resources continue to grow producing a positive feedback mechanism: The more energy we have, the more technology we can create, the greater our population will grow – creating the need for more energy.

“Coal didn’t replace existing energy sources, it augmented them.”

2. Becoming more efficient doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to leave more fossil fuel in the ground, we’ll just find another place to put it. To explain this, Clark and Berners-Lee use the analogy of squeezing a balloon: when a person or a company consumes less energy, that will free up more fossil fuel for others to use. “Governments seek to reduce their own emissions at the same time as maximising their exports of fossil fuels for use elsewhere.”

The Squeezing Balloon Effect.

The Squeezing Balloon Effect.

Over the last decade, we have become concerned about our impact on the planet, even if there are still plenty of clashing arguments: the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, hybrid cars and even low energy light bulbs. However this hasn’t made a dent in the global exponential curve of our carbon emissions. In fact, it has strengthened it.

“From 2000 to 2010, the average annual growth of carbon emissions from all man-made sources was around 2.3% higher than the long-term trend of 1.8%.”

An exponential curve means that the steepness is proportional to the height. It's the curve you get the the more of something you have, the faster that something grows, in this case, energy.

An exponential curve means that the steepness is proportional to the height. It’s the curve you get the the more of something you have, the faster that something grows, in this case, energy.

Lowering the impact of our goods and services without making our consumption more efficient has presented a great challenge to lowering our carbon emissions. Efficiency doesn’t exempt us from the positive feedback mechanism, unless the demand for fossil fuel drops as we move to a low-carbon society.

So how do we reduce the demand for fossil fuels? That’s the burning question.

If becoming more efficient alone isn’t working, what else can we do to ensure a 50% chance of keeping below a 2C increase in global temperatures?

The authors examine 3 keys areas for constraining fossil fuel use:

  1. Minimising the influence of the fossil fuel sector on politics and public opinion in carbon rich countries.
  2. Maximising the positive global influence of nations which are ready to do an ambitious deal and
  3. Stemming the flow of money into fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure.

Money is flowing into oil, coal and gas extraction and infrastructure sectors as if global warming had ever been discovered. $672m a year is spent by the fossil fuel industry in securing more energy reserves that, as Carbon Tracker reports, are not safe to burn.

bubbleFossil fuel companies raise money from pension funds, lenders and other investors such as our universities and use the capital to develop more reserves. Investors assume that this will lead to oil, coal and gas sales which will generate revenue. When carbon limits are introduced through an inevitable global climate deal, less fuel will be consumed and reserves will become stranded assets that no longer provide returns. $6.74 trillion of capital expenditure, our universities endowments and pension funds could be wasted developing burnable reserves, producing a carbon bubble.

Cutting our financial links to the fossil fuel industry will have a massive impact on how they do business. “Art galleries and cultural institutions could shun their sponsorship and institutional investors could even divest from the fossil fuel sector all together.”

fossil freeThis year, students all over the UK will be demanding that their universities go Fossil Free. Motions for support are already being passed by student unions in the UK. This is looking to be the largest global climate movement our generation will ever be part of.

The authors observe that “the rapidly growing campaign around divestment is sending a powerful message and highlighting the idea that fossil fuel production now has an unavoidable moral dimension, much like other controversial sectors such as firearms and tobacco.”

The Burning Question covers plenty more questions, empowering the reader that it is possible to reach out to the community and build this movement whether fossil fuel companies and our governments like it or not.

If you’re serious about being a Fossil Free activist then this book should be at the top of your reading list.

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