Dismantling the fossil fuel economy in Stockholm+50 – Nikki Reisch and Lili Fuhr
To tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution, Stockholm+50 must tackle oil, gas and coal head-on.
Our planet is facing a triple climatic, natural and polluting crisis, with a common cause: saving fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are driving rampant climate disruption, widespread biodiversity loss and ubiquitous plastic pollution. The conclusion is clear and should be paramount when political leaders gather in Stockholm this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Any effort to address these existential threats to human and ecological health will make little sense as long as the fossil fuel economy remains intact.
As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently noted, fossil fuels are suffocating our planet. Over the past decade, their combustion has accounted for 86% of global carbon dioxide emissions, for which only a few players bear overwhelming responsibility. In fact, nearly two-thirds of all CO2 emitted since the industrial revolution can be traced to just 90 polluters, mostly the largest fossil fuel producers.
That the beginning
Yet rather than curbing polluters, governments around the world currently plan to allow more than twice as much fossil fuel production in 2030 as would be on target – agreed under the Paris Agreement. of 2015 – to limit global warming to 1.5°C. above pre-industrial levels. And when it comes to the damage caused by fossil fuels, rising global temperatures and intensifying extreme weather events are just the beginning.
Last year, the UN special rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights, Marcos Orellana, affirmed what frontline communities have long known: the production of fossil fuels generates toxic compounds and pollutes air, water and soil. Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for around one in five deaths globally in 2018. Additionally, oil and gas are the building blocks for toxic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers synthetics that drive ecosystems and species to extinction. These fossil fuel-based products perpetuate an economic and agro-industrial model that drives deforestation, destroys biodiversity and threatens human health.
Fossil fuels are also at the origin of the proliferation of plastics, which accumulate even in the most remote regions of the planet, from the summit of Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Ninety-nine percent of all plastics are made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels, primarily oil and gas. The production of petrochemical feedstocks for plastics and the use of fossil fuels throughout the plastics value chain are driving demand for oil and gas and exposing millions of people to toxic pollution.
As if that were not enough, fossil fuels foment and finance violent conflicts in the world. The fossil fuel economy enables the war on Ukraine led by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the humanitarian crisis it has created. In the seven years since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, eight of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have enriched the Russian government with an estimated $95.4 billion. Russia’s revenue from energy exports has soared since February’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent prices soaring. And the big Western oil companies, profiting from the conflict, have reaped record profits.
Instead of facing responsibility, the oil and gas industry and its allies are exploiting the Ukraine crisis to push for even more drilling, fracking and liquefied natural gas exports around the world. But new fossil fuel infrastructure, which will take years to come online, will do nothing to solve the current energy crisis. Instead, it will only deepen the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, empower producers to wreak havoc on people and the planet, and push a climate-safe future even further out of reach.
As world leaders gather for Stockholm+50, breaking our addiction to fossil fuels should be the priority. Yet fossil fuels are conspicuously absent from the official concept note and agenda, and barely mentioned in the background documents for the three “leadership dialogues” that are supposed to inform the summit’s outcomes.
This omission is not accidental. The fossil fuel lobby has decades of experience in casting doubt on the damage done by industry and obscuring the link between fossil fuels and the toxic chemicals used in industrial agriculture and plastic products. When outright denial didn’t work, the industry touted bogus solutions, including speculative tech fixes, market mechanisms with gigantic loopholes, and misleading “net zero” promises. The aim is to divert political attention from the urgent action needed to end reliance on fossil fuels and scale up proven approaches, such as renewable energy, agroecology and plastic reduction and reuse.
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Such transformative action is precisely what Stockholm+50 must provide. Participating governments and policymakers must recognize that fossil fuels are the primary driver of the triple crisis we face and they must establish a bold agenda to halt the expansion of fossil fuels, ensure a rapid and equitable decline in oil, from gas and coal, and accelerating a just transition to a fossil-free future.
One possible feature of such an agenda would be a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty – an initiative that has garnered broad support, including from thousands of civil society organizations, hundreds of scientists and parliamentarians, more than 100 Nobel laureates and dozens of municipalities. Governments. To drive progress, a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives from indigenous communities, governments, international institutions and academia, will meet tomorrow, the day before the start of Stockholm+50, for a pre-summit on global just transition from fossil fuels.
Alongside the Stockholm meeting, an intergovernmental negotiating committee, convened by the United Nations Environment Programme, is meeting in Dakar to craft a legally binding global treaty on plastics. Basically, the treaty will need to take a holistic approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, starting with the extraction of fossil fuels.
If we have learned one thing in the 50 years since the first conference in Stockholm, it is that a fossil fuel future is no future at all. To tackle the converging crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and petrochemical and plastic pollution, Stockholm+50 has no alternative but to confront oil, gas and coal head-on.
Reprint prohibited—copyright Project Syndicate 2022, ‘Dismantling the fossil-fuel economy at Stockholm+50’