The end of fossil fuels?

VIRTUAL REALITY - Tony Lopez - The Philippine Star

Global warming has a friend. It is two words – fossil fuels. These are crude oil, coal and natural gas.

Oil, coal and natural gas account for up to 80 percent of the world’s energy and 85 percent of Philippine energy.

Sadly, fossil fuels also account for more than 75 percent of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Carbon dioxide accounts for 76 percent of total GHGs, methane 16 percent and nitrous oxide 6 percent. Since 1970, GHG emissions have increased 70 percent.

On Dec. 13, 2023, at the end of two weeks of raucous meetings during the world’s warmest year on record, 200 countries agreed, in writing, to put an end to the use of fossil fuels.

It is the first time in 28 annual meetings on climate change that the two words – fossil fuels – are mentioned in any agreement.

Agreement came at end of the latest or 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) called the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producing country.

COP28 president, UAE’s Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, summed up the COP28’s achievements: 

“A global goal to triple renewables and double energy efficiency. Declarations on agriculture, food and health. Many more oil and gas companies stepping up for the first time on methane and emissions. We have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement. All of these are world firsts. And all of these are crucial actions that will help shape a better, cleaner world with greater, more equitable prosperity. And then we became the first COP to host a change-makers Majlis. And I felt that that was the turning point in our negotiations.”

The agreement to end the use of fossil fuels is in Article 28-d) of the 11,000-word First Global Stockade Proposal of the COP28: “Transitioning away from fossil fuels, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action on this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

The operative word is “transitioning,” which experts say could mean anything (there is no fixed timetable): a phase-down (for instance, 28-b) called for accelerating the phase-down of unabated coal power), a phaseout, a stoppage, an end. 

But transitioning implies one thing – as long as there is continuing demand for fossil fuels, you cannot phase out or stop using fossil fuels.

The demand for fossil fuels must be curbed. That can be achieved mainly by 28-a), “tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030;” 28-g), “accelerating the reduction of emissions from road transport” and 28-h) “phasing out of inefficient fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible.”

The Dubai global stockade took inventory of where the world has been since the 2015 Paris Agreement where 196 countries agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or the world risks adverse consequences such as rising sea levels, loss of coastal lands, more frequent and more severe droughts and floods and threats to biodiversity. The COP28’s consensus was grim: 1.5 cannot be achieved.

To limit warming to 1.5, COP28 requires countries to reduce global gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and by 60 percent by 2035, from 2019 levels.

To do that, poor or developing countries hurt by global warming need a total $5.8 trillion to $5.9 trillion on or before 2030. To adapt to global warming, these countries need $215 billion to $387 billion annually for six years until 2030.

Moreover, $4.3 trillion a year must be invested in clean energy until 2030, and thereafter, until 2050, another $5 trillion to hit net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero means GHGs produced must not exceed GHGs removed from the atmosphere – through a combination of emission reduction and emission removal.

Many governments subsidize electricity that comes from oil, coal and natural gas, making that electricity unusually cheap.

Fossil fuels are dead plants that did not decompose and turned into layers of oil, coal and other sediments millions of years ago. If the oil, coal and natural gas are burned, they release the carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases (GHGs) they had earlier stored.

“Humans have been digging up these layers and burning them at a rate the planet has never seen before, releasing vast amounts of CO2 in a geological blink of an eye. By burning these fossil fuels, humans have essentially taken millions of years of carbon uptake by plants and returned it to the atmosphere in less than 300 years,” relates the British Museum of Natural History.

Says Wisevoter, “the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is natural and is part of a regulating system known as the carbon cycle. However, with excessive emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, the carbon cycle would be disrupted, thereby accelerating global warming. The emission of each country is measured through their carbon footprint.”

The UN says “fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat. This leads to global warming and climate change. The world is now warming faster than at any point in recorded history. Warmer temperatures over time are changing weather patterns and disrupting the usual balance of nature. This poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of life on Earth.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) warns that “to prevent worsening and potentially irreversible effects of climate change, the world’s average temperature should not exceed that of preindustrial times (1850-1900) by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).”

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