Can Keeping It in the Ground Be Fair?

Published on
by

Can Keeping It in the Ground Be Fair?

Amid calls to keep dirty fuels in the ground, we must also grapple with issues of equity and fairness when it comes to considering how the remaining carbon budget for extraction of unexploited fossil fuels should be shared. (Photo: Break Free from Fossil Fuels)

The movement to ‘keep it in the ground’ is gaining pace. The climate science is becoming ever more apocalyptic about how little time we have to curb dangerous climate change - a recent UNEP report suggested we have only three years to act to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. While we believe that no temperature rise is safe or justifiable, since lives are already being lost due to current temperature increases, but over 1.5 degrees average global rise will trigger tipping points beyond which the impacts will sky-rocket. So the global carbon budget—the amount of carbon emissions we can put in the atmosphere and still stay under 1.5 degrees—is shrinking rapidly. Keeping all unexploited fossil fuels in the ground seems like the only solution for tackling the problem at its source.

Friends of the Earth groups all over the world are part of grassroots struggles to keep oil, coal and gas in the ground. They stand with local communities who are exposed to the toxic impacts of air and water pollution, who experience land grabs for dirty energy infrastructure projects, who lose their homes and livelihoods, often their lives, as their local environments are devastated. The fights against dirty energy on the ground are about more than the climate, they are also about local impacts of extractivism. Friends of the Earth International, through its 75 member groups, is fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground all across the world.

And yet... we are grappling hard with issues of equity and fairness when it comes to considering how the remaining carbon budget for extraction of unexploited fossil fuels should be shared.

"Past and present colonialism and imperialism too often means that the economic benefits of extraction in the developing world have been stolen by developed countries while the toxic legacies are left behind for communities on the ground."

There has been a fair amount of thinking about ‘consumption’ or ‘demand’ emissions in the climate justice movement. Friends of the Earth International has clear principles as to how the consumption (emissions) carbon budget should be divided fairly according to responsibility, capacity and the right to sustainable societies. This can be seen in our work as part of the Fair Shares Equity Review.

That’s because up until now, in debates about equity, the world has been talking exclusively about who can emit how much CO2.  We have only begun to talk about how fossil fuels are extracted, where are they extracted, how much is extracted, by whom, for whom, when, who benefits and who is harmed.

Historically developed countries have benefited from both the extraction and the consumption of fossil fuels and used that to build up their societies. Past and present colonialism and imperialism too often means that the economic benefits of extraction in the developing world have been stolen by developed countries while the toxic legacies are left behind for communities on the ground.

Thinking about equity and extraction has raised far more questions than answers for Friends of the Earth International and for some of our allies, and it's a topic we’ll be grappling with for a good while yet. We recognize that any discussion of equity and fairshares for extraction must be guided by three realities:

  • So much of the world’s atmospheric space has already been used up that equity cannot be accomplished just by immediately ending production in the global North.
  • The fact that developed countries have profited from extracting more of their fossil fuel deposits further increases the North's already sizeable climate debt and requires additional compensation for Southern countries.
  • We need to provide a just transition for communities and workers who will be impacted by the ending of fossil fuel extraction.

With extraction equity cannot be achieved simply by dividing the carbon budget in the same way as we have done for consumption because:

  • Not all countries have fossil reserves so it is impossible to allocate them fairly in an “extraction budget.”
  • Some reserves are dirtier than others so we don’t want to make space for resources like coal or heavy crude just because they are in the global South.
  • Resources in the global South are often on Indigenous people’s lands and equity cannot be justification for further land grabs.

This means that finance is key to addressing extraction equitably. However, this also raises difficult considerations – if we pay countries not to extract this inevitably favours countries with large fossil fuel resources and industries. For countries who haven’t extracted, but who haven’t got anything to extract there is no reward, even though they also haven’t contributed to global climate change.

And another key question is where do the fossil fuels that have been extracted end up? Many Southern countries export the majority of their fossil fuels to the North or other countries in the South, but the profits largely go to transnational corporations. Where fuels are used domestically these often benefit heavy industry, elites or vested interests and do not serve to meet the energy needs of ordinary people.

If we suggest that it is the South who can use the last of the extraction budget, this could also undermine local fights against fossil fuels. Friends of the Earth groups are fighting dirty energy and extractivism for many reason, often not related to climate. If we start to say that some extraction can happen in the South where should it happen? Most of our groups would not welcome it where they work, they do not want coal oil or gas because they do not want their land, air and water polluted nor their communities harmed.

Yet we come back to the same inequity that rich countries have benefited from fossil fuel extraction and have used up almost all the atmospheric space and that poorer countries have no space to extract and exploit fossil fuels for their own benefit. The transitions that could have been made 20 years ago when there was room in the carbon budget cannot be made now. This means that developed countries must compensate developing countries for these stolen opportunities, for the ‘debt’ that industrialised countries owe for taking more than their fair share.

Dipti Bhatnagar

Dipti Bhatnagar is one of three Climate Justice & Energy Co-coordinators for Friends of the Earth International.

Sara Shaw

Sara Shaw is one of three Climate Justice and Energy Programme Coordinators at Friends of the Earth International.

Share This Article