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Fossil fuel and climate change

Several studies have shown that burning fossil fuels is the biggest source of CO2 emissions and thus the major driving force of climate change1–3. Consequently, scholars critique that current mitigation tools do not address this issue in an adequat way. Emission trading and programms like Reducing Emissions of Degradation and Deforestation (REDD) for example, are seen to not tackle or question the essece  of the fossil fuel economy4. Rather than questioning it carbon trade can be seen as legitimating and stabilizing our fossil fuel based economies4. The mitigation tool provided by the original idea of the Yasuni ITT initiative is different. By leaving fossil fuels under the ground at biodiversity hotspots, which consequently cannot be burnt, this represents an important step towards a more resilient condition for humanity. 

According to a study by the International Energy Agency, one third of all fossil fuels must be left un-extracted if we do not want the temperature to increase more than two degrees by the end of this century5. An analysis of the Gratham Research Institute and Carbon Tracker even states that "a precautionary approach means only 20% of total fossil fuel reserves can be burnt to 2050"6. With a stress test of the carbon budget, the institutes confirm that the majority of the remaining fossil fuels are "unburnable"6.  They cannot be burned if we want to maintain a safe human space on our planet7

Fossil fuels and their multiple climate change impacts

The LSE research institute for Climate Change and the Environment and Carbon Tracker argue that it is irrational to further invest in the exploration of new reserves as  is the usual practice of fossil fuel companies6. If we cannot burn fossil fuels without destroying our safe human space on our planet it seems logical to avoid extracting them in the first place.

Fossil fuel extraction and usage have multiple social and climate change impacts which lead to the loss of biodiversity and livelihoods. Extraction very often goes hand in hand with deforestation and often results in pollution. Together with the change of the environment around places of extraction it leads to a great loss of biodiversity and the deterioration of the living space of local and indigenous people. Deforestation fosters climate change which again has a negative impact on biodiversity. Research from Harvard University estimates that 25% of species on land will be extirpated by 2050 due to climate change8. Depending on the type of fossil fuel and the method of extraction, different impacts such as decreasing water access for local populations can be observed.

Climate justice and Carbon majors

In the context of fossil fuel extraction the consideration of climate justice is of special relevance. The impact of its extraction is local and mostly located in the South. Most of it is thus burned in the global North. As mentioned above the burning of fossil fuels has an extreme impact on climate change which again is over proportionally affecting those benefitting the least of it. A demand coming from the South to keep fossil fuels under the ground in connection with compensation can strongly be connected to climate justice (See more Martinez-Alier 20079).

A more recent study moreover showed that "63 percent of the carbon dioxide and methane emitted between 1751 and 2010 [can be attributed] to just 90 entities. Fifty are investor-owned companies such as Chevron, Peabody, Shell, and BHP Billiton. Thirty-one are state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramco and Statoil, and nine are government-run industries in countries such as China, Poland, and the former Soviet Union"10. These extractive companies make huge profits at the same time as they strongly contribute to climate change which especially impacts the global South. Under the current rules this implies to a large extent a "privatisation" of profits and a externalisation of its costs, leading to extreme climate injustice. 

For more information on fossil fuels and climate change click on the topics. 



[1]  Espinosa, C. (2013), "The riddle of leaving the oil in the soil. Ecuador's Yasuní-ITT project from a discourse perspective", Forest Policies and Economics, Vol. 36, p. 27–36. Abstract available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1389934112001633

[2]  Meinshausen, M. et al (2009), "Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C", Nature, 458, p. 1158–1162.

[3]  Larrea, C. (2013), “Ecuadors Yasuni-ITT Initiative A Critical Assessment”.

[4]  Lohmann, L. (2012), "Financialization, Commodification and Carbon. The Contradictions of Neoliberal Climate Policy", Social Register, Vol. 47, p. 85–107.

[5]  Viúdez, J. (2013), "La huella empersarial en el clima", El País, 1 December 2013.

[6]  Leaton, J. et al (2013), “Unburnable-Carbon-2013. Wasted capital and standed assests”.

[7]  Rockström, J. (2010), "Anthropogenic global environmental change- risk and uncertainties", Stockholm Seminar, Stockholm Resilience Centre.

[8]  Chivian, E. and Bernstein, A. (2010), "How our health depends on Biodiversity", Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard.

[9]  Martinez-Alier, J. and Temper, L. (2007), “Oil and Climate Change: Voices from the South”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42 No. 50, pp. 16–19. Preview available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40277042?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[10]  Heede, R. (2014[2013]), "Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010", Climatic Change, Vol. 122, No.1, pp. 229-241. Executive Summary available at: http://carbonmajors.org/download-the-study/