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Interviews with Experts

Interviews with global experts talking about Yasuni, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, climate change and more. 


Kjell Kühne - the Leave it in the Ground Initiative 

Kjell Kuhne

Kjell Kühne is a world citizen and climate activist with a diverse set of insights into the climate challenge that humanity faces. Kjell is German and lives with his family in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2011 he set up the Leave it in the Ground Initiative (LINGO). We talk to him about LINGO, COP22, Yasuni, and moving away from fossil fuels. 

- Kjell, tell us a bit about the Leave it in the Ground Initiative. What does it do and how did the project arise?

LINGO was started in 2011 during the climate talks in Durban South Africa at COP 17. It arose from a systems analysis of the climate crisis that led me to understand that the cheap and abundant supply of fossil fuels is one of the key drivers of the climate crisis and one of the biggest levers we can pull if we want to overcome it.

Back in 2011 there were already a number of initiatives working on transitions towards 100% clean energy in different parts of the world and at the same time there were people fighting against the extraction of oil, coal and gas on their lands. The idea was to bring those two groups together and we established ourselves an agenda which has three main goals. Firstly, to bring the question of fossil fuel extraction onto the UN climate agenda. Secondly, to stop the advancement of the fossil fuel frontier into new environments and new unconventional fossil fuels as well. And the third one is to facilitate the transition from a fossil fuel based economy to a 100% renewable energy based economy all around the world and for every country and every city.

We are aware that the energy transition needs to be accomplished very quickly in order to stop short of certain tipping points within the global climate system even though we don’t know exactly where they are. And this has led us to look for solutions that would make it possible to phase down or, some would say, collapse, the current fossil fuel economy in a very short number of years. I call these game changing solutions. We have identified a number of these game changing solutions and are also working on promoting them to involve more people in  the work on these game changers.


- What actions do you promote in order to leave oil in the ground?

There are different ways to achieve this. One is to support communities’ right to say no. In different legal instruments either on a national or on an international level, communities have a right to decide about things happening on their land. And when fossil fuel extraction or oil extraction comes about, often local communities are opposed, so one of the things we propose is to respect this right of local communities to say no to oil extraction. There are also some existing commitments by governments. For example, prohibiting mineral extraction in protected areas was already decided in 2000 but hasn’t really been implemented by governments.

When governments honour this commitment not to allow extraction of mineral resources from protected areas, that is another way to stop oil extraction. Another way to reduce oil extraction is by doing away with fossil fuel subsidies because in many cases extraction is only economically viable with the financial support by governments through subsidies, so speeding up fossil fuel subsidy reform is another way of keeping certain amounts of oil in the ground.


- What are your thoughts on the Yasuni-ITT initiative, what do you think is the main reason it failed?

In my perception from abroad, from what I have heard and read is that the support of the government of Rafael Correa and of the president himself for the Yasuni ITT agreement was never 100%. So, a part of the reason why the initiative failed is that the president would not whole heartedly support and push forward this initiative. Another reason I believe that could have played a role is that the model is not really scalable. The amount of funding demanded by Ecuador for keeping the Yasuni oil in the ground is so high that if we wanted to apply the model to other countries that have bigger oil reserves or other fossil fuels reserves, the amount of funding would be so high that it is not very likely that such a mechanism would be applicable on a global scale.


- You live in Chiapas, Mexico. Can you tell us about any good initiatives in Mexico (or elsewhere) that you have seen that could be applied to other countries, such as Ecuador?

Yes of course. One good initiative or mechanism that we have in Mexico is an electricity tariff that subsidises the basic household consumption of electricity up to, I believe, 75 kilowatt hours per month. So if you use up to 75 kilowatt hours per month of electricity you have a very low electricity bill. If you go over a second limit, which is, I believe, 125 kilowatt hours per month, electricity turns much more expensive. So people who use a lot of electricity pay a much higher price and people who just meet their basic electricity needs pay a very low and subsidised price. I believe that this is a very smart mechanism for guaranteeing that everyone has access to a certain basic standard of living, in this case household electricity, but that excessive use of those people who have financial means carries a higher price tag, and helps support the rest. So this is an incentive for people to stay within the basic consumption levels, and if they want to use more of course they can, they will just pay more. This makes a lot of sense for me.


- According to Global Witness, killings of environmental activists reached a record high last year, with 185 killings in 16 countries. The problem is particularly acute in Latin America. What has been your experience as an environmental activist in the region?

Personally I have not been exposed to any threats, but I would say this is mainly due to me keeping a low profile, also because I’m a foreigner living in Mexico and I might get deported if I get too involved in some issues. But I have known people in my city that have received death threats for their environmental activism. And I knew anti-mining activist Mariano Abarca who was shot dead in front of his house in our state Chiapas a few years ago. So personal security is definitely something that always needs to be figured into our considerations and planning, thinking about possible campaigns, possible strategies. And of course that doesn’t always make it easy to adopt the most impactful strategies.


"This move away from fossil fuels is inevitable. The question, and that’s a very important question, is how fast we will move away from them." 


- COP22 is coming up in November. What do you expect from this year’s conference, following on from the Paris Agreement last year?

I like to focus on the big picture and for me the big issue at the climate conference is mitigation on a global scale and on that ticket the UNFCCC progress so far has failed badly and in my analysis it has to do with the framing of the issue as one of reducing fossil fuel demand, but not on a global scale. So, while some countries reduce their burning of fossil fuels, others grow theirs, and extraction is not on the negotiation table. I do not expect extraction to get onto the table by Marrakesh so basically I am afraid that the process itself will still be a lot of wasted time because phasing out oil, gas and coal extraction is not being talked about and is not being advanced through these plans. So my expectations in terms of effective government agreements in Marrakesh on the issue of mitigating climate change are close to zero.

What I would expect from them is to advance at least on issues of reforming fossil fuel subsidies, setting a timeline for stopping fossil fuel subsidies and even other issues such as not drilling for oil or gas in protected areas, respecting the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities, not criminalising people who defend their lands against being devastated by fossil fuel extraction and generally pushing forward with what has been termed by colleagues “cooperative decarbonisation” – decarbonising sectors together with those countries who find a common interest in decarbonising certain sectors and moving forward on that.


- Do you think we can realistically move away from fossil fuels?

Of course we can. Humankind has lived without fossil fuels for most of its existence. We are living a very brief moment in human history where we are using fossil fuels during just a few years. In the future, looking back we will be perceive our present times as a very strange era of our history. Today this is not too clear to most people, but the laws of physics say that this age cannot continue indefinitely. If you look at peak oil, peak gas and peak coal you know that these are coming or have already happened.

Renewable energy technologies are developing so fast and are getting cheaper so fast, that it is a question of a couple of years, hopefully not many decades from now, we will not be burning fossil fuels anymore. This move away from fossil fuels is inevitable. The question, and that’s a very important question, is how fast we will move away from them. Because, as I mentioned before, there are certain tipping elements in the global climate system and if we tip those over, or some of them, they reinforce climate change and we may get into something that we call “runaway climate change” that keeps going and won’t stop until our planet is a number of degrees hotter than today and the poles are without ice and we don’t want to make this happen. So the speed of the energy transition and the speed of the move away from fossil fuels will determine whether we can stop short of those tipping points and that’s the most crucial question.

But I am completely convinced that with the amount of renewable energy that we have, for example in Germany today, you can live a very comfortable life and do away with fossil fuels very easily. Some things will change, some luxuries we enjoy today we will not continue enjoying probably, such as holiday flights. But good quality of life does not necessarily have to include those things so when thinking about guaranteeing a good quality of life for everybody and doing so with 100% clean energy that is definitely possible today with existing technologies. I would like to point to one very big potential that is largely untapped and that is the potential of smart design for energy and resource efficiency. Today we live in a consumer society where we produce products that we use and then throw away and rarely even fix or repair. With smart design we can achieve the same number or the same amount of services with much less material throughput. There is a lot of work that has been done on that in Germany, for example by the Wuppertal Institute that shows that in many industries and many services you can achieve the same goal with just 10% of the energy or material use that we have today. So I am confident that we can retain a good quality of life without fossil fuels.