The Guardian view on fossil fuels: a very long way to go
New carbon capture technology should be welcomed. But weaning the world off coal, oil and gas is what matters most
The switching on of the world’s largest carbon capture and storage plant, in Iceland, is a glimmer of hope in a bleak climate landscape. The amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by this new machine will be tiny: 4,000 tonnes a year, which is equivalent to that produced by 870 cars. Still, the project brings a step closer the possibility that significant amounts of carbon dioxide could, one day, be removed from the atmosphere.
The significant risks that such technological developments carry must be addressed head-on. The danger is that they are a displacement activity from the massive and necessary task of reducing and then eliminating emissions (with any residual emissions offset or, if carbon capture technologies are scaled up, removed). This distraction need not be deliberate, although fossil fuel producers have consistently undermined climate action by promoting the idea that technological solutions will eventually make calls to decarbonise obsolete.
Whether false hope arises due to corporate misinformation or wishful thinking, it is essential not to be fooled into thinking that carbon capture technology or similar developments will save us – and thus that the status quo is safe. The opposite is true, as is shown by rising temperatures and alarming new analysis of the prospects facing the world’s biggest fossil fuel reserves, and the people and countries that depend on them. A new study, laying bare the gulf dividing the commitments made by governments in the Paris climate agreement from the coal, oil and gas industries’ plans, concludes that 97% of coal reserves in the US, Russia and former Soviet states must stay buried if the world is to stand a chance of limiting the increase in heating to 1.5C. The same goes for almost two-thirds of oil in the Middle East, while Arctic extraction must stop altogether.
With just seven weeks until the Glasgow climate conference, at which governments must make a new round of emissions commitments, pressure is building on all those with the power to influence decisions. This week, the US government announced plans to produce 45% of the country’s electricity through solar power by 2050 – a massive increase on last year’s total of 3% (in the UK the figure was 4%). Last week, the Iraqi government made an unprecedented intervention, calling for oil-producing countries to move rapidly away from fossil fuel dependency and develop renewables as a replacement. Ali Allawi, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, wrote in the Guardian of the urgent need for international investment to support the development of green industries. The alternative, he warned, would be hardship and instability.
The fast-falling cost of renewables sends a clear signal that there is a route to safety. So does the political momentum generated by younger generations of voters and activists who are full of fear for the future. But the role of technologies such as that being tested in Iceland, and new forms of nuclear energy, remain highly contested and unclear. The inescapable fact remains unchanged: fossil fuels will continue to heat up our planet for as long as we keep burning them. Net zero pledges are empty promises unless they are accompanied by binding commitments to stop.