12. Why Our Lives Depend on Keeping 80 Percent of Fossil Fuels in the Ground

by Project Censored

The Spring 2016 issue of YES! Magazine featured articles on the theme “After Oil.” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, wrote that, when it comes to climate change, the essential problem is not “industry versus environmentalists, or Republicans against Democrats. It’s people against physics.” For that reason, the compromises and trade-offs typical of most public policy debates will not work, because “lobbying physics is useless.” What does physics tell us? McKibben reported that we “have to keep 80 percent of the fossil fuel reserves we know about underground,” the aim of a Keep It in the Ground movement that began five years ago.

At that time, McKibben reported, environmentalists engaged in climate policy focused on reducing demand. Such an approach has been making “slow but steady progress.” Reducing demand was working, but not quickly enough, so the Keep It in the Ground movement focused on the supply side of climate policy. “We have to leave fossil fuel in the ground,” McKibben reported. The world’s remaining concentrations of fossil fuels can be understood as “money pits”—untapped coal, gas, and oil could be worth $20 trillion—or as “carbon bombs,” which will wreck the planet if they are used. For this reason, the Keep It in the Ground movement has opposed the Keystone pipeline and what would have been the world’s largest coal mine in Queensland, Australia, while advocating for colleges and universities, doctors’ associations, and churches from around the world to divest from fossil fuels. Blocking pipelines, McKibben wrote, cuts the fuse on the carbon bomb, while divestment campaigns have “driven the necessity of keeping carbon underground from the fringes into the heart of the world’s establishment.”

With alternatives to fossil fuel becoming increasingly less expensive, “we don’t need to win this fight forever,” McKibben wrote. Instead, if we can hold off fossil fuel development for “just a few more years … we’ll have made the transition to clean energy irreversible.”

That transition was the focus of Richard Heinberg’s article, which reported on what the US could do in the next ten years to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Heinberg, a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, wrote that the transition to renewable energy would be unlike previous energy transitions, which were “additive” and “driven by opportunity, not policy.” We still use firewood, even after adding coal and other energy sources, for example. By contrast, the shift to renewable energy would involve trading our currently dominant energy sources for alternative ones “that have different characteristics,” entailing “hefty” challenges.

Heinberg and his colleague David Fridley, a scientist in the Energy Analysis Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have analyzed and assessed a variety of already-formulated plans for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. In Heinberg’s YES! Magazine article, he provided a summary of three “levels” of change, tailored to the United States. The first level focused on what can be done “relatively quickly and cheaply,” scaling up to the third level, which would take “long, expensive, sustained effort” to implement.

First, the transition would be kick-started by shifting electricity production from coal sources to solar and wind power. Since solar and wind power generate electricity, “it makes sense to electrify as much of our energy usage as we can,” Heinberg wrote. Along with retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and increasing the market share of local organic foods, level one changes “could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in 10 to 20 years.”

Level two addresses “harder stuff,” including some of the consequences of how solar and wind power differ from fossil fuels. Because solar and wind provide intermittent energy, when they become our primary energy sources, we would have to “accommodate that intermittency,” for example by significantly increasing “grid-level” energy storage and by timing energy use to coordinate with available sunlight and wind energy. Although most manufacturing already runs on electricity, many raw materials either are fossil fuels or require fossil fuels for mining or transportation. “Considerable effort” would be required to replace industrial materials based on fossil fuels. Adding level two changes would achieve “roughly 80 percent reduction in emissions” compared to our current levels, Heinberg reported.

Level three addresses the “really hard stuff.” Concrete is currently fundamental for all kinds of construction. Making cement—concrete’s crucial ingredient—requires high heat. Theoretically, this could be provided by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen, but this shift would entail “a nearly complete redesign of the process,” Heinberg reported. Similarly, eliminating all fossil fuel inputs from our food system would require not only local organic food (as noted in level one) but also the redesign of the food system “to minimize processing, packaging, and transport.” In the transport sector, paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt is “possible,” but would require “complete redesign” of processes and equipment. Aviation fuels have no good substitute, and air travel might have to be relegated to a “specialty transportation mode,” he wrote. Together, however, addressing these most difficult aspects of the transition to renewable energy could get us “beyond zero carbon emissions.”

Leading up to and in the aftermath of the United Nations Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris in December 2015, popular and corporate media featured limited coverage of the Keep It in the Ground movement and its issues. An article in the Huffington Post quoted the executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, as saying, “Three quarters of the fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground,” a position that illustrated, according to the article, “how the discourse is moving ‘upstream,’” from controlling emissions to limiting fossil fuel production. In January 2016, Time magazine ran a brief article on a scientific report published in the journal Nature, which found that 80 percent of coal reserves, half of gas, and one-third of oil reserves could not be used if the world is to avoid global temperatures rising more than two degrees Celsius. Notably, however, the Time coverage of this report—just five sentences in length—was based entirely on a much more detailed article on the findings, originally published by the Guardian.

Bill McKibben, “Why We Need to Keep 80 Percent of Fossil Fuels in the Ground,” YES! Magazine, February 15, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/why-we-need-to-keep-80-percent-of-fossil-fuels-in-the-ground-20160215.

Richard Heinberg, “100% Renewable Energy: What We Can Do in 10 Years,” YES! Magazine, February 22, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/100-renewable-energy-what-we-can-do-in-10-years-20160222.

Student Researcher: Janzen Adisewojo (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)