Why consumer habits are equally as important for energy transition

The effect of individual efforts to arrest emissions are negligible unless adopted near-universally

More than 20 countries have halted backing for fossil fuel projects. Bloomberg

The Conference of the Parties, the annual UN climate conference, was held in a major oil and gas exporting country only twice, compared with 14 in Europe and four times in Germany alone. So, the decision to base 2023’s Cop28 in the UAE is a chance for a more constructive dialogue.

Many have commented on the apparent “irony” of awarding Cop28 to a leading global oil and gas exporter, without noting the irony that Europe’s largest consumer of coal has hosted the event four times.

As novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens writes in Foreign Policy about the difficulty of depicting climate change in fiction, “narratives of disaster or the victory of good over evil unfold according to simplified moral schema and in realms beyond individual control”. There are a few villains, merchants of doubt and disinformation.

But the real story of the struggle against climate change is the struggle against ourselves: the difficulty of retooling a global economy that has brought unprecedented living standards and opportunities to most of humanity, although not all.

It is very easy to blame a few big and faceless corporations and foreign countries for climate change; much harder to admit that everyone with a modern lifestyle relies on fossil fuels. But individual exhortations to virtue – to cycle, go vegan, avoid flying and recycle – are negligible unless adopted near-universally. So, we need collective action driven by acknowledgement of the problem and a joint will that results in global governments and citizens doing whatever it takes.

The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (Boga), founded by Denmark and Costa Rica earlier this year, now has 11 member countries, of which only the Danes are significant petroleum producers. They have pledged to stop granting new drilling permits and eventually forbid oil and gas extraction entirely. Yet Boga does not ban refining or the combustion of oil and gas – the stage that actually releases greenhouse gases.

The Biden administration recently halted US backing for fossil fuel projects abroad, as more than 20 countries did at Cop26 in November. Such prohibitions affect coal mines, oil and gasfields and pipelines, as well as fossil power plants. They do not exclude airports, seaports, plane and car manufacturers, steelmakers, aluminium smelters, fertiliser plants or a whole range of other industries whose operations and products depend on fossil fuels.

There is growing disquiet among some African countries, who are not happy with wealthy Western states continuing oil and gas extraction while blocking finance to them. For comparison, the $100 billion of climate finance mobilised for developing countries after years of painful negotiation is what Nigeria alone, Africa’s largest producer, earns from oil in two years.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, is suing to block a $1.15bn UK loan for the Mozambique liquefied natural gas project. Its total cost of $20bn is 50 per cent more than the country’s gross domestic product, and 10 times the foreign direct investment Maputo attracted in 2019. Whatever the merits of this particular venture, there is no prospect of investors or aid organisations ploughing a similar amount into low-carbon energy in Mozambique.

Kenyan Petroleum Minister John Munyes told Africa Oil Week in Dubai in November that "we want to develop our resources as Africa, just as our brothers in the West have done”. His country, Mauritania, Senegal, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda, as well as Latin America's Guyana and Suriname are emerging oil and gas exporters.

There is a self-serving element to the oil and gas industry’s protestations. Their newfound concern for energy poverty in Africa is convenient, when their focus remains squarely on exporting the continent’s resources rather than supplying them locally.

As Napoleon observed, “to understand the man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20”. Much of the senior leadership of fossil fuel businesses still considers wind, solar and electric vehicles to be the expensive, unreliable and small-scale toys they were 20 years ago, not the sophisticated and highly competitive technology they have become.

The shift to low-carbon energy will come much faster than industry dinosaurs expect. But on current trends, it will come slower and less completely than climate goals require.

The anti-fossil fuel agenda from environmentalists and the left-wing in the US is understandable given the long and negative history of industry lobbying and misinformation that has contributed to Republicans’ wilful opposition to climate science. Europeans, with limited oil and gas resources, are also inclined to paint the villain as extraction, not consumption.

Yet too much environmentalist dialogue remains stuck in the discredited “peak oil supply” idea of the early 2000s – that the finite quantity of fossil fuels will all eventually be dug up and burnt, unless prevented.

In reality, the majority of carbon fuels in the ground will never be extracted but a restriction of production in one place causes it to pop up somewhere else. African countries may be short of capital; the leading resource holders in the Middle East, China, the US, Canada, Australia and Russia are not.

One resolution would be to require that new fossil fuel extraction will not lead to ultimate carbon dioxide emissions – whether by conversion to hydrogen, combustion with carbon capture and storage, input into long-lived petrochemical products, full offset with verified biological sequestration such as forestry or cancellation by directly removing the equivalent atmospheric carbon dioxide.

There is nothing immoral about developing and using fossil fuels. It is immoral to profit from damaging the climate for poorer nations, people and future generations; it is also wrong to deny them prosperity. The challenge for climate-energy policy is to reconcile those apparent paradoxes.

Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: December 13th 2021, 3:30 AM