t is starting to look like the ambitious targets set at the Paris climate conference (COP 21) and the resultant “first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal” adopted by 194 countries may for a while longer remain just but an ambitious dream as fossil fuels look poised to remain the main source of energy in the world.
The past three centuries have been powered by coal, oil and gas and although serious concerns about their environmental costs have arisen —with good reason — fossil fuels are still providing substantial economic benefits for both developed and developing nations.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, of the approximately 65% global greenhouse gas emissions generated by fossil fuel combustion, coal is responsible for 45%, oil for 35%, and natural gas for 20%.
While it is starting to be regarded as being politically-correct by those in power to acknowledge that the continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels to power growth will result in the planet getting roasted, US president Donald Trump has proudly let the world know he doesn’t buy into such a narrative. As such, he has made it clear he has every intention of ensuring his years at the helm see the US remaining very much a coal country.
This is in spite of the fact that scientists are ever reiterating that in order to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees or more above pre-industrial levels — a dive into what is believed to be an unsustainable future —most of the remaining fossil fuels need to be left in the ground either forever or at least until there’s an affordable and scalable way to stop the exhaust gases from building up in the atmosphere.
While there appears some will from most countries to move towards a future that is cleaner, greener and sustainable — one that avoids climate Armageddon — it would seem the idea of abandoning growth and forcing living standards to decline, is one that many find hellishly difficult.
People have become accustomed to the life of comfort that the fossil fuels have afforded them that not many are prepared to imagine cutting back on smartphones, tablets and laptops, which are currently being made and powered by fossil fuels; or a return to the days before gas cookers and washing machines. As a matter of fact, the reason why fossil fuel companies continue to be in business is because people want the products that fossil fuels make and power. It is not just a question of supply, but also a question of demand.
As the world increasingly moves towards extravagant consumption, Africa has not been spared and the continent’s energy consumption is also set to rise. Countries like Zimbabwe have abundant coal reserves, while nations such as Angola and Nigeria are significant oil exporters, and there seems to be every intention to make full use of the resources — in an endeavour to catch up with the developed world.
While the idea of African nations skipping fossil fuels entirely and moving straight to renewables like solar energy, is one that would ensure a brighter, healthier future; it is one regarded as too costly for most countries to even contemplate. The fact that some major polluters like the US seem to be backing out of the commitment to provide funding to developing nations for climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives, is bound to make the continued burning of the fossil fuels that much a necessity.
Trump’s efforts to deregulate the American fossil fuel industry, while decrying the cost of renewable energy, does not at all help matters in the fight to do away with fossil fuels.
It would then seem capitalism may forever remain the insuperable obstacle to any reduction in the world’s fossil fuel consumption.
But maybe the picture is not all doom and gloom as there are some countries that have vowed to act on moving towards a fossil-free scenario. Sweden, for instance, is making concerted efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, with the country’s prime minister, Stefan Löfvén, recently declaring that he believed that “with a concerted national effort, Sweden could be fossil-fuel free by 2030”. Like Sweden, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Finland, France and Scotland, are also well-suited to end their reliance on fossil fuels over the next couple of decades, with many of their governments having made pledges to that effect.
One thing for a fact, the continued use of fossil fuels has come with dire consequences. In the coal-mining town of Hwange in Zimbabwe for instance. Years of coal mining has left the area engulfed in coal dust, greatly diminishing the quality of life for the people in the area.
On a larger scale, climate change is now a reality no longer deniable and those who insist on saying it isn’t happening look more and more certain to end up on the wrong side of history. Damage as a result of climate change is especially being felt by poor developing nations as the average temperature continues to rise and increased incidences of droughts and floods continue to be experienced, among other calamities.
But in spite of all that, one thing currently looks certain: the fossil fuel age will end either when there are newer, better and cleaner ways of providing energy, or when it is too late to prevent irreparable damage to the planet.