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Part 5: The fossil fuel industry cannot gatekeep the energy transition

Limiting global warming to 1.5-2°C means cutting fossil fuel production yearly while keeping coal, oil, and gas in the ground. But what does this mean for the world’s most carbon-emitting industry?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, supporting fossil fuel production is not aligned with our essential low-carbon transition.

Experts consider the just and equitable shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy to be a critical and necessary step in solving climate change. With fossil fuel titans having known about their impacts on the climate for decades, this is ample time to prepare for this transition.

The industry’s actions, however, speak volumes to their continued unwillingness to address the climate crisis.

In 2021, amidst reports that 60 percent of oil and gas and 90 percent of coal must stay in the ground to sufficiently limit warming, fossil fuel production continued to rise. In the same year, a now ex-executive of Exxon touted the company’s efforts to mislead the public and advocate for solutions they did not consider politically feasible, like a carbon tax.

Credit: Li et al

These efforts follow a decades-long shift in the industry’s strategy from one of climate denial and misinformation campaigns to one of fossil fuel solutionism, greenwashing, techno-optimism, and vague ‘net-zero by 2050’ targets.

But for every year they delay effective climate action, they leave behind increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, environmental damage, and human rights violations in their wake.

To limit these impacts is to first acknowledge and address climate delay perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry (and then some).

According to United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, ‘Instead of slowing down the decarbonization of the global economy, now is the time to accelerate the energy transition to a renewable energy future.’

Barriers to a fossil-free pathway

The future of fossil fuels remains uncertain. The Energy Transitions Commission expect them to account for just 25 percent less of primary energy consumption by 2040, compared to today. Others plan to bring fossil fuel extraction to near-zero.

This is a spectrum, as is the discussion on what role the industry should be playing when it comes to deciding said future. Should fossil fuel companies switch to renewables? If they choose not to, should governments continue to support and engage them?

Few countries stand committed to moving toward a clean energy mix, curtailing the extraction of fossil fuels. Others maintain one foot in both camps: making promises and insufficient pledges to assuage the public while receiving donations from fossil fuel companies and supporting them through subsidies.

Differing estimates. Charts showing how subsidy estimates can vastly differ in reports.

Enabling the rise of clean energy

Each country has its reasons for subsidising fossil fuels and barriers to removing these subsidies can range from the political power of fossil fuel companies to the legitimate concerns surrounding job loss and access to energy.

768 million people do not have access to electricity, down from almost 1.7 billion in 2000. If countries are to reform and remove fossil fuel subsidies as a way of reducing emissions and addressing climate change, then clean alternatives need to be made affordable to continue improving this access and ensure an equitable energy transition.

Statistic: Number of people without access to electricity worldwide from 2000 to 2021, by region (in millions) | Statista

Ironically, making the price of clean energy competitive is made more difficult by the fact that fossil fuels are cheap because they’re subsidised.

Even so, several countries including Indonesia, Morocco, Ghana, and the Philippines have used the money not given to fossil fuel companies to offset the rise in energy prices. Each country has been able to introduce cash transfer and social support like healthcare for poor families.

Funding from high-income countries and the private sector is also intended to develop renewable energy in lower-income countries, though these goals have yet to be met.

For renewables like wind and solar, prices are already competitive with those of fossil fuels, showing the promise of technological research and development.

Although there remains a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the fossil fuel industry, its future does not need to be dictated by itself alone but rather, by the need to address the current climate crisis. For the sake of the environment and the billions affected, the fossil fuel industry can no longer be gatekeeper to the necessary energy transition.

According to Guterres, ‘Fossil fuels are a dead end for our planet, for humanity, and yes, for economies.’