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SCIENCE

Fossil fuel industry must 'implode' to avoid climate disaster

‘The age of carbon is over’ & transition to a greener economy is inevitable, says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, climate science adviser to the German government & Pope Francis
 

by Damian Carrington

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An “induced implosion” of the fossil fuel industry must take place for there to be any chance of avoiding dangerous global warming, according to one of the world’s most influential climate scientists. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an adviser to the German government and Pope Francis, has stated:
“In the end it is a moral decision. Do you want to be part of the generation that screwed up the planet for the next 1,000 years? I don’t think we should make that decision.”

Schellnhuber was speaking at a major science conference in Paris, taking place before the crunch UN summit of December 2015, also in the French capital, at which nations must seal a deal on global warming. World leaders were sent a stark message in the communique issued by the scientific conference, which warned that the opportunity to avoid disaster is rapidly diminishing.

Laurence Tubiana, France’s climate change ambassador, said the aim of the UN summit is to send a signal that the transition from coal, oil and gas to a low-carbon economy is inevitable. If the aim is achieved,
“You will see a massive acceleration to a greener economy, particularly on the investment side in the next five years”.

The conference was addressed by Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said the fossil fuel industry is facing big challenges:
“A mixture of many different changes going on – consumption patterns, civil society, political action – will be disruptive to the carbon economy.”

Stiglitz, Schellnhuber and Tubiana all expressed support for the global divestment campaign, which lobbies investors to sell their stocks in the biggest fossil fuel companies. Schellnhuber:
“I fully support the divestment movement. Do you want to be part of an economy that is destroying the world, or part of an economy that protects creation?”

Tubiana said the recent call by major European oil and gas companies for a price to be put on carbon pollution was partly the result of the “very important” divestment movement:
“Oil companies are like canaries in the mine. When there is no danger they are silent, but when they feel danger and opportunity they make a move.”

Schellnhuber told the more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries:
“In order to stay below a 2ºC increase [the internationally agreed limit for global warming], or even 3ºC increase, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20-30 years. Otherwise we have no chance of avoiding dangerous, perhaps disastrous, climate change. The promise of the fossil fuel age has never been fulfilled. We still have 2bn people living on $2 (£1.30) a day – that is crazy...The age of carbon is over. And it is not the poor of the world who will pay for the transition. We need a global social movement, and this is already happening.”

He said the best analogy for the transition from dirty to clean energy was the abolition of slavery, which was fundamentally driven by ethical concerns. The overall scientific’ communique said that tackling climate change is economically affordable, but that nations “waiting on the sidelines” will cause the costs to rise. It said global warming is already inflicting damage across the globe and that failing to act will lock in the dangers.

Stiglitz backed the affordability of tackling climate change:
“Creating a green economy is not only consistent with economic growth, it can promote economic growth, especially when there is a lack of demand in the global economy.

He said the best option for an enforceable climate deal was for willing countries to introduce carbon taxes and then penalise nations refusing to do the same with border taxes on their exported goods. A voluntary agreement could not solve the climate crisis:
“The atmosphere is a public good – all want to get the benefits, but no one wants to pay the cost.”

Dismissing carbon markets as too prone to political lobbying, he commented:
“It is basically giving away money.”

It was, Stiglitz said, unsurprising that a carbon price has proven hard to implement on a worldwide scale:
“If you own fossil fuel assets, and the impact of any global agreement on climate change is going to push their value down, you are going to resist, using whatever tactics. But the interests of global society have to overcome these narrow special interests.”

Damian Carrington is the head of Environment at the Guardian newspaper. Publ. here 15.7.15



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