Monica Araya: governments can say no to fossil fuels

The fossil fuel lobby has a disproportionate influence on world leaders, but governments are not as powerless as they pretend

(Pic: BP)

(Pic: BP)

By Monica Araya in Warsaw

If we are serious about closing the emission gap this decade and avoiding serious dangerous climate change, our work in finance, technology, and politics must drive decision makers towards saying no to high carbon infrastructure that would lock in emissions for the decades to come. 

Governments do have the choice to say no.

According to the latest Emissions Gap Report by UNEP even if all governments implemented their pledges, the emissions gap between pledges and a 2°C-consistent pathway would be 8-12 GtCO2eq. This gap will become a chronic global problem unless we challenge the notion that investing in high carbon infrastructure is “inevitable”.

This argument of “inevitability” – that there is little politicians can do against carbonization of our energy and transport system—is used by governments in both developed and developing countries. In fact, this inability to say no to dirty infrastructure is a defining feature of the political class running countries around the world.

But as we collectively become more aware of (and in some cases harmed by) the expensive and tragic impacts of climate-related impacts, a tipping point in the debate about fossil fuels and climate change looms large in the horizon.  The cause-effect logic is clearer: there is a global problem that is getting worse and we cannot solve it unless all countries, especially the largest emitters, agree to decarbonizes their energy, transport and food systems this decade.

An urgent and far more political approach is therefore needed. If we are serious about decarbonization then we need to leave the comfort zone of technocratic debates that focus almost exclusively on green measures that reduce emissions. These measures are essential and must scale up – no doubt.

But the gravity of the climate crisis forces us to also challenge the status quo. If the fossil fuel industry is the biggest, best-organized lobby force in the planet then why are we so uncomfortable discussing their disproportionate influence on our governments?  (In the context of this COP, the hosting of the World Coal Summit the same week as the climate negotiations only confirm the challenging tone in which industry talks to governments).

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Most countries are being confronted to at least one massive energy infrastructure project that would lock in emissions for the decades to come.  I have noted striking similarities in how supporters of these projects argue their case:

Let us look at two examples of notorious high-carbon projects in two very different countries: The Keystone pipeline project in the US (to transport shale oil from Canada and the Northern US to the Gulf Coast of Texas) and the oil refinery project in Costa Rica (which would be co-funded and co-operated with China):

-Project enthusiasts tend to minimize the climate change dimension associated to these investments.  It is argued that this is “only a pipeline”-or “only a refinery” that will have little impact on global emissions. E.g. The Minister of Natural Resources of Canada has said that oil sands account for only 0.1% of global greenhouse-gas emissions). In my country, the Minister of Environment, René Castro – a vocal supporter of the oil refinery – has emphasized that the refinery will not be problem because the emissions will not come from there but cars. In sum, the linkages to the rest of the energy system tend to be diluted and treated as non-consequential.

-The job creation tends to be emphasized. Both the pipeline and the refinery are portrayed as being a strong medicine against unemployment.  In the case the US pipeline, some have found that the net generation would be low (e.g. Tom Steyer has suggested that only 35 permanent jobs would be generated).  The economics of refineries have been widely analyzed (e.g. IEA) and turn out to be one of the least profitable activities of the oil value chain – hardly a credible driver for long-term job creation.

-Supporters argue that not building these projects could result in worse environmental impacts. In the US, the argument is that the fuel would make would be transported by train to the US. In CR project defenders insist that without the refinery fuels for cars in Costa Rica would be inevitably dirtier.  Clearly, both arguments have been heavily contested.

-Procedural mechanisms, not the project´s fundamentals, have delayed the projects: The two projects have been delayed due to fights over “conflict of interests” in the choice of companies in charge of the feasibility case study in the case of oil refinery in Costa Rica and of the environmental assessment in the case of the pipeline the US.

-Organized, fact-based civil society experts made a difference. In Costa Rica, the project generated a public backlash led by economists, environmental advocates, journalists, constitutional lawyers who provided specific arguments against the oil refinery which lead to its temporary withdrawal by the National Comptroller (the Government is however pushing for the refinery, again). In the US, in addition to heated debates led by civil society experts, the project led to nearly 1.5 million comments being submitted. Both cases reaffirm the role that civil society plays in putting projects into a broader perspective, securing due process and highlighting the deep flaws in the official technical analysis submitted by proponents.

Locking in carbon

Here is the dimension that we need to emphasize in the public domain: These projects create “hubs” of carbonization that lock in the wrong infrastructure for decades thus delaying our domestic transition to cleaner energy pathways (and the health and social benefits associated with this shift). They are not just “routine” projects.

Once built, the oil refinery in Costa Rica could open the door to potential oil exploration and some even might argue the case for flexible design in case we choose to exploit natural gas in the future. In the US, the pipeline would open a gateway for dirty oil allowing this fuel reach other countries for the years to come. In sum, we need to better track their “domino” effect, offer good data, and bring to the public debate the array of negative impacts.  Raise the question of how much is at stake?

In complement, in many of our countries, the next step is to link the climate crisis with the quest for genuine democracy. Let’s face it: a large investment project is unlikely to be stopped in the US, in Costa Rica, and perhaps anywhere, because it hurts the global climate. The way to win the argument is by creating a broader, bigger debate about the choices that government officials make once they are elected.

They win elections in the name of a commitment to the public interest so why not debate the paradox of their siding with smaller yet powerful constituencies that want to delay low carbon economy and their benefits.  In Costa Rica, for instance, all of us who see the oil refinery project as a historical mistake are getting closer to assessing the opportunity cost of taking a loan from China to build a $1.3 billion in high-carbon infrastructure instead of using a loan for investments in cleaner infrastructure.

The debate we need will need to have – if we are serious about climate change – is about who will decide the kind the countries we build this decade and the years to come?  Who decides whether to invest in clean or dirty infrastructure and why?


Monica Araya is a Climate policy and politics adviser from Costa Rica and Executive Director of Nivela – a think tank to be launched in 2014. Senior Policy Associate at E3G (UK) and a Member of the Steering Committee of UNEP Emissions Gap Report. These views are expressed in her personal capacity.

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