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Toothless Climate Pledges That Permit Fossil Fuel Extraction Are Like 'Declaring a Global Pandemic Without a Plan for Social Distancing': Scientists

"Solving the Covid-19 pandemic requires stopping the spread of the virus. Solving the ozone hole crisis required ending the production of ODSs. And solving the climate crisis requires leaving the fossil carbon in the ground."

New research calls for policymakers to end all government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and ban all exploration for new fossil fuel reserves anywhere in the world.

New research calls for policymakers to end all government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and ban all exploration for new fossil fuel reserves anywhere in the world. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 2.0)

New research out Thursday calls for global policymakers to heed lessons from addressing ozone depletion and the coronavirus pandemic in order to effectively tackle the climate crisis by ditching unenforceable pledges that enable "climate hypocrisy" in favor of actual policies and statutes that would leave coal, oil, and gas in the ground.

The recommendations, published in the journal Global Sustainability, come from University of Exeter scientists who lament that "climate policies focus almost exclusively on the demand side, blaming fossil fuel users for greenhouse gas emissions."

"Individual behavior choices—such as diets and modes of travel—are important, but more fundamental is to replace the supply of fossil fuels with green energy," said study co-author Tim Lenton, director of Exeter's Global Systems Institute (GSI).

Lenton and co-author Mark Baldwin, also of the GSI, framed governments' actions to address the ozone layer as "arguably humanity's greatest success story regarding an environmental problem." Political will led to the Montreal Protocol and the banning of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs), they noted.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, most governments have enacted measures that "focused directly at the problem and reducing the spread of the virus." As such, the researchers said, both ozone depletion and pandemic responses reflect decisive action on the part of global leaders.

Unfortunately, wrote Baldwin and Lenton, "humanity's approach to solving the climate crisis does not parallel either ozone or Covid-19." While calling the Paris climate accord "the best solution that nearly all nations could agree to," the researchers say it's problematic in part because the pact "shows where we want to go, but not how to get there."

"The Paris Agreement does not call for leaving the fossil carbon in the ground," the authors wrote, "it makes no reference to fossil carbon or fossil fuels."

That's a clear problem, the paper says, as "[w]e know the climate crisis is caused mainly by fossil fuels."

Through governments' pledges—or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) commitments—under the agreement, the authors say, countries are allowed to pay lip service to climate action while simultaneously taking actions including subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, destroying forests, and engaging in carbon offset or credit schemes that simply justify continued fossil fuel use.

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"Paris Agreement commitments by individual nations are only a beginning," the paper states. "They are the equivalent of intending to restore the ozone layer without a plan for eliminating ODSs. They are the equivalent of declaring a global pandemic without a plan for social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus."

Among the obstacles to key climate action pointed to are climate disinformation campaigns.

"Today, clever attempts are being made to deflect attention away from reducing fossil fuel extraction towards promoting individual behavior changes—convincing people that climate change is their fault and that they need to reduce their carbon footprint," wrote the researchers. "If well-meaning people believe that the solution lies with individual behavior changes, then the fossil fuel industry can continue unimpeded. The key is having an informed public who are not easily swayed by disinformation campaigns or false statements."

While the planetary need to move to wind and solar is clear, standing in the way of that energy transition are "government energy policies that support the fossil fuel industry," the paper says. 

"Solving the Covid-19 pandemic requires stopping the spread of the virus," says the paper. "Solving the ozone hole crisis required ending the production of ODSs. And solving the climate crisis requires leaving the fossil carbon in the ground."

The researchers laid out a seven-pronged plan of immediate action:

  1. End all government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
  2. Ban all exploration for new oil/gas/coal reserves anywhere in the world.
  3. Enforce a policy that no public money can be spent on fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere in the world.
  4. Stop justifying fossil fuel use by employing carbon offset schemes.
  5. Redirect most of the fossil fuel subsidies to targeted programs for enabling the transition to a green energy economy, especially towards solving major challenges.
  6. Minimize reliance on future negative-emission technologies. They should be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment, but the plan to solve the climate crisis should proceed on the premise that they will not work at scale.
  7. International trade deals: do not buy products from nations that destroy rainforests in order to produce cheaper, greater quantities of meat and agricultural products for export.

The research from the Exeter scientists comes a day after an Oil Change International (OCI) analysis also underscored the need to "keep it in the ground."

That assessment found "failure across the board" in major oil and gas companies' climate plans in terms of aligning with the Paris agreement's goal of limiting global warming this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Offering a similar analogy to fighting a pandemic without a social-distancing plan, Kelly Trout, co-author of the OCI analysis, said that fossil fuel companies vowing to set their own climate goals is like "an arsonist pledging to light a few less fires."

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