In a world with finite resources, the effects of human activities on the environment seriously jeopardize the future of future generations. Unsplash

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen proposed that the epoch known as the Holocene, which started some 11,700 years ago, had reached its end. To describe our current era, he employed the term anthropocene, originated earlier by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer. Together the two scientists asserted that humans’ collective influence on the Earth system was so profound that it was altering the planet’s geological and ecological trajectory. According to them, humanity had entered a new geologic era.

The pivotal juncture of the steam engine

This declaration prompted considerable debate. The most obvious remains the question of when the Anthropocene actually began. The initial proposal was 1784, when Englishman James Watt patented his steam engine, the defining emblem of the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, this choice is consistent with the significant rise in the concentrations of several greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, as evidenced by data collected from ice cores.

From the perspective of other scientists, humanity’s recent history has followed a trajectory they describe as the “great acceleration”. From around 1950, the main indicators of the global socioeconomic system and the Earth system began to show a distinct trend of exponentiality.

Ever since, humanity’s ecological footprint has continually grown, now existing in a whole slew of interconnected forms:

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  • drastically rapid and intense changes in climate;

  • widespread damage to the entire web of life due to humans encroaching on ecosystems and loading them with radically new substances (such as synthetic chemicals, plastics, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, radionuclides and fluorinated gases);

  • biodiversity collapse at an unprecedented speed and scale (which some believe will usher in the sixth mass extinction, the previous one being the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago);

  • multiple disturbances in biogeochemical cycles (specifically those that govern water, hydrogen and phosphorous).

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Who is responsible?

Another debate regarding the Anthropocene was advanced by Swedish scientists Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg. They note that Anthropocene narrative holds the entire human species equally accountable. Even when placing the advent of industry in a few nations as the start of the Anthropocene, many authors assert that the ultimate cause of society’s rising dependence on fossil fuels is part of a gradual evolutionary process, originating with our ancestors’ mastery of fire (at least 400,000 years ago).

Malm and Hornborg also stress that the use of umbrella terms like human beings and humankind assumes that it is an inevitable result of our species’ natural propensity for resource exploitation. For the two researchers, this naturalisation conceals the social dimension of the fossil fuel regime that has spanned the last two centuries.

After all, the human race did not vote unanimously to adopt the coal-fired steam engine or later oil- and gas-based technologies. Equally, the trajectory of our species was not decided by representatives in power, who themselves were not elected based on natural characteristics.

According to Malm and Hornborg, it has actually been social and political conditions that have created, time and again, the possibility for individuals with enough capital to make lucrative investments that contributed to the collapse of our climate. And these individuals have almost invariably been white, middle- and upper-class men.

Who emits what?

The Anthropocene as applied to the scale of all humankind overlooks another major point: the role of intraspecies inequality in climate upheaval and ecological imbalance.

Currently, the 10% of the world’s inhabitants who emit the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) are responsible for 48% of all global emissions, whereas the 50% who emit the smallest amount account for a mere 12% of global emissions. Estimates place the richest 1% among the biggest individual emitters on the planet (mainly coming from the United States, Luxembourg, Singapore and Saudi Arabia), who each emit more than 200 tons of CO2 equivalent annually. At the other end of the spectrum are the poorest individuals from Honduras, Mozambique, Rwanda and Malawi, whose emissions are 2,000 times lower, coming in at around 0.1 tons of CO2 equivalent per head per year.

This close link between wealth and carbon footprint implies a shared, but not equal, responsibility, which is ill-suited to the sweeping categorisation of the Anthropocene.

From British coal to American oil

This criticism takes on greater significance when we consider the historical perspective, given that climate disturbance is the result of cumulative GHG emissions. Take the case of the United Kingdom: we might ask why it should be spearheading the fight against climate change when it currently represents only around 1% of global carbon emissions. But this overlooks the fact that the country has contributed to 4.5% of global emissions since 1850, making it the eighth-biggest polluter in history.

In terms of the exponential acceleration of the trajectory of the Earth system over the past 200 years, contributions have widely differed among the nations of the world and their inhabitants. As respective stalwarts of global economic development during the 19th and 20th centuries, the United Kingdom and United States now owe a monumental ecological debt toward other nations. Coal fuelled the United Kingdom’s endeavours of imperial domination, while this same role was (and continues to be) played by oil in the United States.

Survival or otherwise

Clarity is important when it comes to the thorny issue of each nation’s historical contribution to climate shift, so it is worth bearing in mind that the GHG emissions and overall environmental impact of a given country or person are chiefly determined by the rate at which they consume goods and services. By and large, it is unrealistic for those living in rich countries to think that they can “live green”. Furthermore, for all the quantitative data at our disposal, there is nothing that indicates either the absolute necessity – or, by contrast, the utter futility – of measuring a kilogram of carbon dioxide in the same way for everyone across the board.

For some, emitting slightly more greenhouse gases comes down to a question of survival, perhaps representing the fuel required to cook a portion of rice or build a roof. For others, it amounts only to purchasing yet another gadget for a few more hours of entertainment. Some argue that reducing the world’s population would be an effective means of combating climate disruption (and all other the environmental disturbances), but a simpler solution would be to prevent the ultra-rich from continuing to pursue their shamelessly climate-destroying lifestyles.

By constructing the abstract notion of a uniformly affected “humankind”, the dominant discourse around the Anthropocene suggests that the responsibility is shared equally by all of us. In the Amazon, the Yanomami and Achuar peoples get by without a single gram of fossil fuel, surviving through hunting, fishing, foraging and subsistence agriculture. Should they feel as responsible for climate change and biodiversity collapse as the world’s richest industrialists, bankers and corporate solicitors?

If the Earth really has entered a new geological epoch, the responsibilities of each nation and individual differ too greatly across space and time for us to consider “the human species” as a suitable abstraction for shouldering the burden of guilt.

Quite apart from all these debates and disputes, climate disruption and biodiversity loss call for immediate, tangible action on a massive scale. There is no shortage of efforts and initiatives, with some now being implemented across the globe, but which ones are actually working?

Just how useful is the Paris Agreement?

In 2015, the COP21 was held at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris.

The resulting agreement was hailed as a watershed moment, marking the first time that 196 countries committed to decarbonising the global economy. In practice, each state was free to define its national strategy for the energy transition. All the countries party to the agreement must then present their “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) to the other signatories. These NDCs are collated to form the expected trajectory for global greenhouse gas emissions.

The issue with such a strategy (assuming that it is actually enforced) is that the numbers are insufficient. Even if the countries delivered on all their promises, human-induced GHG emissions would still bring about a temperature rise of around 2.7°C by the end of the century.

If we maintain the current momentum for the target to limit the temperature rise to 2°C, we will fall short of by 12 billion tons of annual CO? equivalent (Gt CO?-eq/year). This deficit climbs to 20 Gt CO2-eq/year if we aim for a maximum rise of 1.5°C.

Under the framework of the 2015 Paris Agreement, signatory states can theoretically amend their commitments every five years to strengthen their ambitions. The fact is, however, that emissions have continued to rise in virtually every signatory country (when calculated by consumption rather than production).

Although the Paris Agreement was presented as a diplomatic success, it must be conceded as another hollow addition to the litany of commitments that prove ineffective in the face of climate disruption. Actually, suspicions should have been cast from the moment that the text was ratified, given that it does not mention the phrase “fossil fuels” even once. The goal was to avoid ruffling any feathers (among public or private actors), and to get as many states as possible on board with signing an agreement that, in the end, offers no solution to the gravest emergency facing humankind.

At the time of the Paris Agreement’s signature in 2015, if humanity were to have any reasonable hope of limiting global warming to 2°C, the cumulative volume of CO2 that we could have afforded to emit was no more than 1,000 Gt. Taking into account the last five years of emissions, this carbon budget has already dropped to 800 Gt. This is equal to one third of the 2,420 Gt of CO2 emitted between 1850 and 2020, including 1,680 Gt from fossil fuel burning (and cement production) and 740 Gt from land use (primarily deforestation).

And with annual emissions at around 40 Gt, this carbon budget will plummet at a breakneck pace, reaching zero within the next two decades if nothing changes.

Could a fossil fuel lockdown solve the problem?

To reach these targets, humans – especially the wealthiest among them – must consent not to use what has traditionally been seen as the source of their material comforts.

Since fossil fuel reserves have the potential for truly colossal emissions, a third of the world’s oil reserves, half of its gas reserves and over 80% of its coal reserves must remain unexploited. Increasing hydrocarbon production, whether from coal mines or oil and gas deposits, or from the exploitation of new fossil fuel resources (e.g., in the Arctic), would therefore sabotage efforts required to limit climate change.

On top of this, the longer we take to start seriously decarbonising the global economy, the more drastic the necessary action will be. If we had started effectively limiting global CO2 emissions back in 2018, it would have been enough for us to reduce emissions by 5% until 2100 to cap the temperature rise at 2°C. Embarking on this gargantuan task in 2020 would have required an annual reduction of 6%. But waiting around until 2025 would entail a reduction of 10% per year.

Faced with this emergency, there have been calls in recent years for a treaty to ban the spread of fossil fuels. “All” we need to do is make everyone agree to stop using the stuff that has powered the global economy for the last century and a half!

To date, this treaty has been signed only by island nations (such as Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands) since these are the most vulnerable to climate collapse. Conversely, hydrocarbon-producing countries and major importing countries are yet to act in this regard. The reason for this is simple: the initiative offers no financial arrangements to compensate hydrocarbon-rich countries, whose governments do not want to risk losing potential GDP.

But if we want to stop the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves, this is precisely the type of compensation that must be offered for an international agreement to achieve meaningful results.

The crucial role of financiers

So, are we done for? Not necessarily. One recent study offers a glimmer of hope. Two researchers from the Harvard Business School have shown that there are promising results in the decision by certain banks to pull investments from the coal sector.

The studied sample of data between 2009 and 2021 demonstrates that when backers of coal companies decide to embrace strong disinvestment policies, these companies reduce their borrowings by 25% compared to others unaffected by such strategies. This capital rationing appears markedly to yield reduced CO2 emissions, as “disinvested” companies are likelier to shut down some of their facilities.

Could this same approach be applied to the oil and gas sector? In theory, yes, but it would be trickier to implement.

For figures in the coal industry, options are limited when it comes to obtaining alternative sources of debt financing if existing ones are withdrawn. Indeed, there are so few banks that actually facilitate transactions involving coal – and relationships are so deeply entrenched – that bankers inevitably hold great sway over who should be financed in this sector. This is not the case in the oil and gas industry, which enjoys a greater diversity of funding options. In any case, all this goes to show that the finance sector has a defining role to play in our transition toward zero carbon.

But it would be delusional to believe that financiers are going to start magically steering the global economy along an eco-friendlier path.

Capitalism dictates a growth imperative that is quite simply nonsensical in a world of finite resources. If we are to stop living beyond the ecological means of our Earth system, we must completely redefine both what we stand for and what we are prepared to give up.

Victor Court, Économiste, chercheur associé au Laboratoire interdisciplinaire des énergies de demain, Université Paris Cité

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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