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Leave the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

By Dominic Naidoo

I recently listened to an incredibly riveting podcast series by the UK’s Guardian media group which followed the news giants crossing the threshold into not just climate reporting but actively taking a stance on climate injustice, which was unheard of in the media at the time.

News organisations are supposed to remain a neutral party in order to fairly report the news, objections and bias aside. It was one of the only rules setting respected media houses apart from state-controlled propaganda organisations, for example. But this was different. The Guardian’s outgoing chief editor at the time, Alan Rusbridger, wanted to leave a lasting and impactful legacy before his tenure ended. Rusbridger wanted the Guardian media group to take a side on the climate issue, to actively investigate and report on climate issues and fight against climate injustices.

One of Rusbridger’s first and most impactful campaigns was a call for businesses and investment firms to divest from oil and gas companies for one simple reason, the Earth can no longer handle nor needs the discovery of more oil and gas.

Last year, a scientific analysis found that most of the world’s already-discovered fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if the climate crisis is to see any sort of positive future.

The research found that 90% of coal and 60% of oil and gas reserves could not be extracted if there was to be even a 50% chance of keeping global heating below 1.5C, the temperature beyond which the world will experience climate disasters now only seen in movies.

Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko – Truck drives pass a conveyor pouring coal produced at Canyon Coal’s Khanye colliery near Bronkhorstspruit, around 90 kilometres north-east of Johannesburg, South Africa, April 26, 2022.

Simply put, there is absolutely no reason for new fossil fuel explorations as we cannot even use the fossil fuels we’ve already discovered.

The research lays bare the huge disconnect between the Paris agreement’s climate goals and the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industry with researchers describing the situation as “absolutely desperate”.

“The analysis implies that many operational and planned fossil fuel projects are unviable,” the scientists said. This means that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel assets in the form of discovered reserves could become worthless.

“New fossil fuel projects made sense only if their backers did not believe the world would act to tackle the climate emergency,” the researchers said in a statement. In order to keep global warming below 1.5C, the analysis implored that:

● The US, Russia and the former Soviet states who possess half of all global coal reserves, will need to keep 97% in the ground, while the figure for Australia is 95%.

● China and India have around a quarter of global coal reserves and will need to keep 76% in the ground.

● Middle Eastern states have more than half the world's oil reserves but will need to keep almost two-thirds in the ground, while 83% of Canada’s oil from tar sands must not be extracted.

● Virtually all unconventional oil or gas, such as from fracking, must remain in the ground and no fossil fuels at all can be extracted from the Arctic.

“It is absolutely desperate,” said Prof Paul Ekins of University College London, UK, and one of the research team. “We are nowhere near the Paris target in terms of the fossil fuels people are planning to produce.”

“Whenever wherever oil and gas is found, every government in the world, despite anything it may have said about climate, tries to pump it out of the ground and into the atmosphere as quickly as possible. It will require private companies to write down their reserves but, for countries with nationalised oil companies, just see a whole heap of their wealth evaporating.”

Picture; Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency (ANA)

“But the positive side is that we actually can do it. We know clean electricity technologies can be deployed at scale very quickly when the policy mechanisms are put in place to do it,” Erkins said.

Christiana Figueres, the reigning UN climate chief at the time of the signing of the Paris climate deal said, “we must keep fossil fuels in the ground. A safe future has no space for any new fossil fuel extraction. The shift to clean energy must be accelerated in order to maintain human activity now and protect human wellbeing tomorrow.”

Like the climate, tensions are heating up as a week of COP27 has seen little tangible action agreed upon.

In its first “Lunchtime Briefing” which took place last week, 9 November, to unpack its opposition to offshore oil and gas, the Green Connection and partners explained how oil and gas exploration also risks harm to marine species and functioning ecosystems.

If these delicate ecosystems are damaged, it will have drastic consequences for coastal communities and small-scale fishers who rely on these ecosystems for food security.

The Green Connection believes that pursuing these fossil fuels does little to address South Africa’s economic crisis, and much less, the energy crisis, and proposes an alternate ‘vision’ for the future of the country’s energy and economic landscape.

The organisation’s strategic lead, Liziwe McDaid said that it is not only focused on ensuring lawful and procedurally fair decision-making in oil and gas projects like Searcher, Azinam, Total, and Karpowerships but are also working on empowering affected communities legally to enable them a voice to speak out against these environmental injustices.

“The way we stopped apartheid was from the ground up and this is also the way we will stop the “blue apartheid”. One of our organisation’s main goals is to help South Africans better understand the issues – in energy, climate, the environment, and socioeconomic justice – to encourage more civil society participation, which would hopefully result in better decisions, which have been made with the greater public interest in mind,” McDaid said.

According to McDaid, “What is difficult to reconcile, however, is that there is this urgent need for decisive action to address the climate crisis, moving away from fossil fuels, while at the same time, there are several offshore oil and gas projects underway, with more still being proposed.”

McDaid’s anger and confusion at these seemingly irreconcilable actions are certainly justified.

Methane gas is 85 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, it is unbelievable that, even though the world has reached its fossil fuel burning threshold, South African and other world leaders still insist on exploring new oil and gas reserves instead of looking to invest in greener energies.

She adds that since energy use and generation has such a significant impact on the climate, it only makes sense to develop a proper integrated energy plan (IEP), which considers both mitigation and adaptation to the crisis.

The Green Connection has written to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling on him to bring section 6 of the National Energy Act (NEA) into operation, and is preparing to go to court should he fail to do so.

Once brought into operation, s6 of NEA will require the Minister of Energy to develop an inclusive IEP with public consultation and to review the plan annually.

The organisation says that the link between the energy crisis and the country’s ongoing lack of an energy plan cannot be ignored. South Africa needs stable and affordable energy into the future and for that, the country needs an IEP.

The Green Connection’s advocacy officer Kholwani Simelane says, “The IEP is a roadmap for South Africa’s future energy landscape. It should guide energy infrastructure investments and policy development, using consumption trends within different sectors of the economy, including agriculture, commerce, industry, residential and transport.”

Simelane says, “Not having a plan, results in haphazard energy decisions which can negatively affect the economy and further disadvantaged communities. The IEP, if done properly, would enable a sustainable, bottom-up way of looking at energy development.”

Small-scale fisherman, Christian Adams of Steenberg Cove said, “As small-scale fishers, we say to our government, to Total and Shell, “Stop oil and gas exploration at the expense of our people.” We fear that we will end up in the same situation as those small-scale fishers and coastal communities in Port Harcourt Nigeria, where the fishers are still feeling the negative impacts of the gas pipelines.”

We have come to a point where we have to ask ourselves “what are we doing here?.” We cannot feed our children money, we cannot expect them to be okay with seeing wildlife and habitats only in books and on screens.

We must dramatically cut our extremely high emissions. We can meet the needs of all our people while still operating within the ecological boundaries of the planet. And we all must acknowledge and recognise that our future will probably be dramatically different from our current reality.

The world has no more room for oil or gas or coal. The world has no more room for greed.