Why haven’t we turned our backs on hydrocarbons yet?

This interview with SIMON PIRANI was published on 19 December by Pro-Ved, the Russian-language economic news website. (In Russian here.) It is about issues raised in his book Burning Up: a Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, to be published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Thanks to Ivan Ovsyannikov, who asked the questions.

Q. In the introduction to your book, you write that, despite widespread assertions to the contrary, the consumption of fossil fuels is growing. This contrasts with what many experts say – that the cost of renewable energy is falling, and that leading economies, including China, are betting on “green energy”. It is claimed that by 2020, Beijing plans that about 50% of incremental electricity generating capacity will be from renewable sources. Can you illustrate your arguments with some figures? Why, notwithstanding the development of alternative technologies and the widespread acceptance of the problems of global warming, pollution, and so on, are fossil fuels not in retreat?

A. In reality, two things are happening at the same time: electricity generation from renewables is rising rapidly, but fossil fuel use is also rising, from a much larger base.

The cost of generating electricity from renewable sources – mainly, wind and solar power – is falling. Electricity from these sources is gaining a share of the market in a number of countries, especially in Europe. In a few countries – Denmark, Germany and Spain in particular – renewables now make up a significant share of electricity generation (in recent years, about a half in Denmark, and one-fifth in Germany and Spain). As you say, the Chinese government has decided to invest in renewable technologies, and so this small business is bound to keep growing. Globally, investment in renewables was running at $250-300 billion per year in 2011-2015, compared to $100-130 billion in electricity generation from fossil fuels.

That’s all the good news. The bad news is that fossil fuels have the advantage of being the dominant incumbent source of electricity generation. Between 1990 and 2015, renewables’ share of electricity generation rose from 1% to 5% – but fossil fuels’ share rose from 63% to 68%. (The shares from hydro power and nuclear power both fell slightly.) So although renewable electricity generation has really soared, growing five times over in that 15-year period, it remains confined to small pockets of the global electricity business as a whole.

Another important point to keep in mind is that electricity generation is only one part of the overall energy picture. About one third of all fossil fuels are used to produce electricity; the other two thirds are used in industrial processes, particularly the manufacture of raw materials such as iron, steel and cement; as raw material for petrochemicals industries, such as making fertilisers for agriculture; for transport of all kinds; and in people’s homes. I think the transition to electricity production from renewables really has begun, but there has been no substantial shift away from fossil fuel use in these other areas of the economy. Optimists say that cars fuelled by petrol and diesel will be replaced by electric cars. Let’s hope so. But let’s also remember that, even if that happens, there will hardly be a positive effect in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, unless all, or almost all, of the electricity is produced from renewable sources.

Between 1990 and 2015, when that five-fold increase in renewable energy generation took place, the total consumption of fossil fuels for all uses rose by about three eighths. And that is the same quarter century that followed the signing of a major international treaty (the Rio convention) by nearly all the world’s governments – including the USA, and all the major oil producers such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and so on – that the greenhouse gas effect is dangerous, and needs to be minimised. The agreement acknowledged that the science showing that fossil fuel combustion is the main cause of global warming is very clear. And it enumerated the sorts of dangers that it produces: rising sea levels that mean widespread flooding of coastal areas; more volatile weather including larger, more unpredictable storms; and ruination of agriculture in many tropical-zone countries due to higher temperatures. People talk about “environmental” issues as though these are separate from human society – but actually all these phenomena are potentially devastating threats to human society.

So your question, about why fossil fuels have not surrendered their position, raises another question: why have the world’s governments signed this treaty, stating clearly the serious danger faced by humanity from global warming – and failed to act upon it? The short answer is not that the governments did not believe the science – I don’t think they are that stupid – but that they were not prepared to take concerted action against these threats to humanity, because they prioritised what they called “economic growth”. This “growth” mainly benefits those who control the economy, not the majority who work in it and/or are dispossessed by it. In other words the short-term interests of elites were prioritised above the general human interest.

Q. In Russia, the development of alternative energy sources is being promoted by Anatoly Chubais, while president Putin puts forward the conservative view: he said recently that “in the next twenty years, it is hydrocarbons that will play the principal role”. Which of these views is more realistic?

A. I passionately hope that fossil fuels will be dislodged from their dominant position in the next twenty years, and I think we all need to fight for that to happen. If the transition away from fossil fuels happens over a longer timescale, then the consequences will be devastating for future generations. But it is important to separate hope from analysis. Based on what has happened in the past, we have to acknowledge that the chance of a significant move away from fossil fuels – by which I mean, not just more electricity generation from renewables but a move away from metal- and cement-based industry, away from fossil-fuel intensive agriculture, away from car-based cities to better ways of living – may well take longer than twenty years.

The factor that could alter timescales is far-reaching social and political change. There are many reports from international organisations and non-governmental organisations, that provide scenarios for the transition away from fossil fuels. All of these, with hardly any exceptions, assume that the existing political and social system, and the existing hierarchical, exploitative way that the economy functions, will remain unchanged. Moves towards more human and egalitarian social and economic relationships could also hasten change in the way that the economy works. All this could, potentially, speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.

Q. How has the Russian elite’s attitude to the role of hydrocarbons in the economy changed historically? On the one hand, we constantly hear talk of the need for diversification; on the other – the current crisis has shown just how oil-dependent the economy remains.

A. When Putin first took over in 2000, he had three clear policy aims with regard to Russia’s oil production. The first was to make the business interests that controlled oil pay a reasonable amount of tax. The Russian state was weakened in the 1990s, and its failure to collect a decent amount of tax from these companies was a sign of it. That ended in Putin’s first and second terms, with the Yukos case and the increase in tax payments from the other oil companies. The second aim was to create conditions for investment in new oil fields, rather than just relying on those that had been developed in the Soviet period. This has begun, with some of Rosneft’s fields for example, but it is a slow process.

Putin’s third aim was to diversify the economy away from oil dependence. I do not think this was just rhetoric. He called on some of the economic reformers in the government to try to implement this policy, with such projects as making Skolkovo a technology hub. But this policy has failed. Diversification was and is much more difficult to implement than changing the situation with tax: not only Russia, but many other oil-producing states, have struggled with this. The latest to announce that it will try is Saudi Arabia; I suspect that it will struggle too. It requires long-term commitment, a strategy shared by the wealthy capitalists and the state, and reasonable economic conditions.

Q. In your introduction, you compare the failure of governments’ attempts to agree on a common strategy to fight against climate change with failures of diplomacy in the run-up to the first world war. It’s a dramatic analogy. Can you briefly outline the contours of the discussion and the main trends, and identify the forces that have prevented a consensus from being reached?

A. The crucial agreement was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, a quarter of a century ago. It’s important to recall that these international political discussions on climate change were prompted by the considerable progress made by climate science in the 1980s. It’s actually a very exciting story of scientific discovery. In the late 1970s, the scientists were convinced that human activity was affecting the climate, but they were not sure about how this was happening, or even about the direction that it would go – that is, would the changes make the atmosphere colder, or hotter, or just much more polluted? By the 1980s, computers had developed to the point where they could model the climate. One sign of this was the improvement in the accuracy of short-term weather forecasts. These same methods were used for longer-range observations of the climate. Another crucial breakthrough was in paleoclimatology, that is the investigation of climatic changes over thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of years. The main method used was to drill down into ice that had piled up over thousands of years in the Arctic and Antarctic, and examine the chemical composition of bubbles that had formed in it. Western scientists had put forward the thesis that the release of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases into the atmosphere caused a greenhouse effect – that is, higher concentrations of these gases prevent heat from leaving the atmosphere and produce global warming. It was readings of 400,000 years worth of data from the Vostok station in Antarctica, a Soviet scientific project, that convinced the scientific community that the greenhouse effect was the dominant one.

Scientists discussed this evidence at international gatherings in the late 1980s and decided to raise the alarm with the politicians. By this time it was clear that global warming was the over-riding trend, and that human activity – mostly, burning fossil fuels – was the over-riding cause. In the mid 1980s, a completely different climatic danger – a big hole in the layer of ozone around the earth, caused by various human-made chemical processes, mostly the old type of refrigerator – was also discovered. All the most powerful countries agreed in 1987 to ban the processes that were damaging the ozone layer, and the problem was dealt with. This showed that international collaboration was possible on such issues. But when in 1992 it came to dealing with global warming, no such agreement was reached. Moving away from fossil fuels, which are so central to the economies of all the powerful countries, is much more difficult than moving away from using the old type of refrigerator.

The Rio treaty on climate change turned out to be the most disastrously empty document of all time. In words, it committed all the countries who signed – that is, almost every country in the world – to reduce fossil fuel use and other activities that contributed to global warming. But, on the insistence of the USA in particular, it included no binding targets or timetables. It included no mention of using regulation or law to address this emergency. Instead, in keeping with the neo-liberal dogma that dominated the USA and the strongest European powers at that time, provision was made for market mechanisms to be used to reduce fossil fuel consumption. The idea, which was implemented in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, was to create a market in carbon dioxide emissions, or rather, in permits that give companies permission to emit carbon dioxide. Companies would pay for permission to pollute. In theory, the price of these permits would go up, it would be in companies’ financial interest to pollute less, and they would adopt less-polluting or non-polluting methods to do their business. In practice, the price of the permits has been too low to make a significant impact.

This approach has been a disastrous failure in the only terms that matter, that is, the rate at which greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. The Kyoto conference in 1997 was followed by an unprecedented increase in fossil fuel consumption in the 2000s, due above all to the export-focused industrial boom in China.

It is tempting to dismiss the whole process of climate negotiations as a cynical political exercise in doing nothing. But that interpretation is not convincing. After all, many of the politicians have grandchildren, and know that they are going to grow up in a world made more dangerous, in a society more impoverished and violent, due to global warming. Why not act? I think the answer is that the politicians and diplomats who negotiated the treaty, and the business leaders who advised them, thought it was more important to preserve and develop the market – that is, to support the growth of the economy organised under the domination of capital – than to address global warming. They deceived themselves that the market could address the global warming issue. To my mind this is a historic failure of the system of states, every bit as serious as that which led to the first world war.

There were differences within the global elite at Rio, to be sure. The governments of the USA and some of the other oil-producing nations were most determined to ensure that there would be no binding commitments in the treaty. They were influenced by extreme neo-liberal ideology, a big dose of climate science denial, and by their own narrow interests. Several of the European governments, and the US Democratic party – which came into government shortly after the Rio conference – favoured a mixture of market mechanisms and regulatory action. And many of them favoured binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A third voice was that of the developing nations, who argued that the problem of global warming had historically been caused by the development of industry in the rich nations, and that these rich nations would have to pay to sort out the consequences. Politically, though, none of these three groups prioritised the sort of drastic change to economic and social structures that will be required to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the way that is needed.

Q. In Russia ecological issues are far from the centre of public attention. The position of the so-called climate sceptics, who say that global warming is a myth, is strong. Even in left-wing circles, it’s quite common for arguments about the climate to be viewed through the prism of “post-truth”. People think it is impossible to determine the objective truth, and that discussion about climate change is a cover for somebody or other’s mercenary interests. To what extent are the dangers [inherent in climate change] recognised in the west, and worldwide, among scientists, in elites, and in the broad mass of people?

A. Firstly, I would not talk about “climate sceptics”. We do not talk about “flat earth sceptics” or “evolution sceptics” – and the science showing that global warming is underway, and that it is caused by human economic activity, is just as good as the science that shows that the earth is spherical, and that humans descended from apes. There is no doubt about that. Of course there are some uncertainties about exactly what the effects will be. We know that the global temperature will rise, in tropical zones more than elsewhere, and that farming will be ruined on a huge scale – but of course we don’t know exactly how huge. We know that sea levels will rise and coastal communities from Bangladesh to New York will be destroyed – but of course we don’t know just how many communities, or how much damage will be done. And we know that the weather will get more volatile and stormy, but not when and where those storms will cause havoc or how many people they will kill.

Secondly, climate science denial is best understood as a political and ideological phenomenon. In the USA, its roots lay in the assault on state regulation – of the environment, of industry, of health and of other things – which intensified under the government of Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1981. Generally, the assault on state regulation, in the name of “free enterprise”, came first; the assault on scientists followed. In the early 1990s, before and after the Rio treaty was signed, a number of the international oil companies gave financial support to lobbyists and PR agencies that spread climate science-denying nonsense. By the late 1990s, most of the oil companies backed away from this activity, recognising that it could be so bad for their reputations that it was not worthwhile. But by that time, much damage had already been done. The ideology of climate science denial had taken on a life of its own. In the USA it lives on in the current presidential administration, which has appointed climate science deniers to powerful jobs that are supposed to involve implementing environmental standards.

In Russia, climate science denial had a different history. In the public sphere, I would say that the late 1980s were the heyday of Soviet environmentalism. Awareness of the dangers posed to the natural world, and human society, by different types of industrial activity were accentuated by the Chernobyl disaster. As the policy of glasnost’ took hold, civil society activists very often took advantage of it to speak out about some of the local environmental damage done by Soviet industry, as well as about social issues. But in the Soviet elite, oil revenues were more important than environmental principles. In the run-up to the Rio conference, some of the Soviet delegates preparing material for the conference vehemently opposed the conclusions, accepted by the vast majority of scientists, about the negative effects of global warming.

At Rio in 1992, the delegates from the Soviet Union, like those from other oil-producing countries, were eventually persuaded to sign the treaty – in some cases, because it didn’t commit them to doing anything. After that, in the post-Soviet period, denialism became more pronounced in the Russian elite. In 2003, an international climate conference was held in Moscow. Whereas diplomats from many countries were hoping some progress would be made, at least on establishing voluntary targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, if not binding or compulsory targets, the Russian delegation determinedly opposed any such action.

Yuri Izrael, then a senior figure in the Russian Academy of Sciences and vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), tried to attack the scientific conclusions that had already for a decade been the basis for all the international climate agreements. He organised a public event at the same time as the conference with Richard Lindzen, one of the most outlandish and discredited denialists from the USA. Andrei Illarionov, who then held a senior post in the Kremlin, was also very vocal in opposing international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But all this had little or nothing to do with science. The reasons for this obstructive policy “were obviously purely political”, as the late Bert Bolin, the Swedish scientist who headed the IPCC, later wrote in his memoirs.

Having said all that, I would add that I don’t think that climate science denial is the most important barrier to action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Far more important, in my view, are the real policies of governments – including most governments who acknowledge that the climate is changing and that action needs to be taken. Even these governments almost all say that the problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be solved with market mechanisms. Even these governments continue to pour billions of dollars of subsidies into the fossil fuel industries – far, far more than they put into renewable energy development.

Q. In your analysis of the patterns of fossil fuel consumption since the 1950s, you write that this process was “shaped by relations of power and wealth in society”. Do you not think that hydrocarbons play the role that they do because of “objective” trends of economic development, manifested in growing demand? Explain how you see this, please. Were alternative roads of development possible, and if so, why were they blocked?

A. For sure, the main cause of increasing fossil fuel consumption during the twentieth century has been the development of industry. Coal became predominant in western Europe and north America after the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. After the so-called “second industrial revolution” of the late 19th century, coal, oil and gas became predominant in all the industrialised countries. The technologies of the “second industrial revolution” – electricity networks, steam engines and turbines, the internal combustion engine that drives motor cars, and, after the first world war, petrochemicals – continue to account for most fossil fuel consumption, right up to today.

I have tried to analyse the way that these technological systems have evolved, in the context of the social and economic systems in which they are embedded, in my book, which will be published next year. The processses of urbanisation, motorisation, electrification and industrialisation – which began in rich countries in the early twentieth century, and were spread across many of the developing countries after the second world war – are key elements in the process. Technological change has made labour – both in industry, and women’s labour in households – more energy-intensive. Workers use electric tools; builders build energy-intensive houses; housewives who live and work in these houses use refrigerators and washing machines that their grandmothers did not have. A huge part of the story since the 1980s is the export of industry – especially the production of energy-intensive materials such as iron, steel and cement – to developing countries.

We can not separate all this activity into one part labelled “necessary for industrial development” and another part labelled “wasteful”. It does not work like that. The technological systems are embedded in sets of social and economic relationships, and these relationships determine how the technology is used. In the first place, these relationships mean that the vast bulk of fossil fuels are consumed in rich countries. In the last twenty years there has been rapid consumption growth in some developing countries, such as China, but much of this has been directed at producing manufactured goods and energy-intensive raw materials for export to rich countries.

Moreover, in the rich countries themselves, it is social and economic relationships that determine how fossil-fuel-consuming technologies are used. Take the example of the motor car, which uses a big proportion of all fossil fuels consumed. While the car is obviously a great way of getting from place to place, the development of the type of car-based and car-dependent cities that now exist  was not inevitable just because there were cars.

In the USA, the first country with mass car ownership, before the second world war car manufacturing companies fought hard to close down bus and train travel that for many people were acceptable and affordable alternatives. They invented the idea of “planned obsolescence” – that a “new” car was marketed each year, making previous versions less desirable – in order to sell more cars. They manufactured cars that were heavier, faster and more expensive – and therefore much more fuel-intensive – than was necessary technologically. In the 1950s, the government, further supported by the car manufacturers, financed a huge programme of road building, while the railways were starved of investment. All this produced a society in the USA in which it is almost impossible to live without a car, and where poor families who can not afford cars suffer real hardship as a result. And in the post-war period, this model of car-centred living in car-friendly cities was exported first to western Europe and then to many other countries. As you know, it hit Russia in the 1990s.

Atlanta in Georgia, USA, and Barcelona in Spain have the same population and roughly the same amount of economic activity. And yet Atlanta, which is more spread out and has no public transport system worthy of the name, produces ten times as much greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels as Barcelona does. That is mainly because of cars.

There are many other examples of technologies that could have been used, and could now be used, in an energy-efficient way to make people’s lives better – but are used the way they are because, as in the case of the American car industry, the important decisions are made in the name of profiteering. We could look at residential housing, that is heated inefficiently with energy-wasting systems, and built with energy-intensive materials that are themselves produced in an energy-wasteful way. The point about all such examples is that technological development could have taken a different path; the way it goes is shaped by social and economic circumstances.

In the 1960s, no-one cared about the wasteful use of oil products by huge American cars. In the 1970s, they only cared because of the sharp increase in oil prices caused by the economic crises of the 1970s. What I find frightening, is that after the global warming danger became known in the 1990s, the American car industry continued to push the country and its population down the most energy-wasteful path. They knew full well about global warming when they convinced many families to replace their car with an even more fuel-wasteful Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV), of which there are now many millions on the road. Governments who knew very well about the global warming danger refused to regulate these vehicles, even by making them a little more expensive, or by taxing them a little to fund better public transport. So it’s not just the failure of the international climate talks that have magnified the danger of global warming; it’s all these other things.

Strong regulation, of SUVs and other transport, of air travel, of construction, of the materials-producing industries, could go a long way towards solving the problem that now faces all of us. But in the longer term I think that the danger of global warming will be overcome by a much deeper-going change in society and the economy, where production is not for profit but in order to meet human need, and to do so in harmony with the natural environment and not by trashing it.

Q. Finally, is there any future scenario that you look at with optimism? And what has to happen for it to be realised? Or is the future only depressing?

A. Although I am by nature an optimistic person, I am very pessimistic about the possibility that anything will be achieved through the international negotiations about climate change. In the quarter of a century since the Rio conference, they have completely failed to re-direct the economy in a manner that makes the world safer for future generations. If we are going to change things, we first have to face up to the appalling reality of that failure – a failure of states on a historical scale. The answers to this crisis must be found outside the process of international climate negotiations. I don’t think that humanity will set out on a different course easily. Judging by history, things are more likely to change suddenly and in unexpected ways than by gradual processes.

Once there is collective will, and once we can admit that social and economic systems can change, I have no doubt that the technological resources are there to move away from fossil fuels. The technologies already exist for decentralised electricity systems, using a variety of different methods to produce electricity. In such systems, fossil fuels in the future will play only a very small role, if they play any role at all. If the sort of technologies that we all already have in our mobile phones, in our pockets, were used to manage electricity flows, the amount of electricity needed could be reduced without depriving anyone of access to the electricity they need. The technologies exist, too, for transport systems that will enable us to move around using a fraction of the fuels currently used. In future, cities will be clean, comfortable, safe places where people move around in all sorts of ways – buses, trams, walkways, bicycles, trains, and others that I can not yet imagine – rather than the car-dominated tangles that they are now. But most important of all, the function of the economy will have to change, to serve human need instead of serving profit. Then the way that fossil fuels are consumed can be worked out collectively, to everyone’s benefit, instead of being determined by corporations.

The reason for optimism is that, when you start thinking about all the wonderful ways that we could live, it is impossible to believe that we will be stuck forever in a social system that not only keeps large sections of the population materially deprived, but is also doing such damage to the relationship between humanity and its natural surroundings. Obviously, we can colletively do better than this.

Simon Pirani is Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. More on his research on the history of fossil fuel consumption here.

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