The growth of the global economy has been fuelled by coal, oil, and gas. Since the industrial revolution, enormous amounts of CO2 emissions have been released into the atmosphere, causing the earth’s average temperature to rise by 1°C.
Climate scientists warn that unabated emissions will exceed 2°C degrees of warming. The 2°C increase in average global temperature might seem insignificant, considering that we experience substantial temperature differences. Temperatures can rise above 35°C in summer and even 50°C in the Middle East and Gulf regions and dip below zero in countries close to the poles in winter.
So, what’s the big fuss about a 2°C increase in global temperatures?
Limiting the 2°C temperature rise was suggested before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded in 1988 (Fendt, 2021).
In the 1970s, William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale, suggested in several papers that if global warming were to exceed 2°C on average, it would push global conditions past any point that any human civilisation had experienced. The 2°C warming will cause extreme conditions based on the historical record of past average temperatures.
In 1988, a decade later, James Hansen, a NASA scientist, testified before Congress and became one of the first scientists to publicly associate GHG emissions from human activity with the warming trend.
He also argued that if the world did not cut down on emissions, it could result in catastrophic events like sea-level rise, extreme weather, and destruction of ecosystems and human settlements worldwide.
Margaret Thatcher agreed. In her speech in 1988 before the Royal Society, she announced her support for sustainable economic growth, saying, “Protecting this balance of nature is, therefore, one of the great challenges of the late 20th century.”
Emissions continue to rise
But emissions continued to skyrocket, particularly in the 1990s when the world embraced free markets and capitalism. In the article by Larry Elliot in the Guardian, capitalism has increased demands for energy fuelled by coal, oil, and gas.
Elliot (2015) explains that capitalism, an economic model, successfully reduced poverty but has some ugly side effects. First, the power shifted to capital over labour.
The abundance of cheap workers resulted in mean pay. with the west transferring its manufacturing to Asian countries like China, India, and Indonesia, resulting in the skyrocketing energy demands in the region mainly sourced from fossil fuels (Elliot, 2015).
Globalisation allowed developing countries to see the lifestyle of developed countries, and they also want what they have, which led to more production of goods and high levels of consumerism.
As the biggest manufacturer in the world, China builds new coal-fired plants every two weeks to meet energy demands and this constant dump of carbon emissions into the atmosphere is the cause of global warming.
As fossil fuels are now deemed the enemy and the bringer of disasters and suffering, green advocates push economies to wean out of it as soon as possible.
Benefits of fossil fuel
Fossil fuels brought so much good to the world. The article notes that the past 250 years of economic growth due to coal, oil, and gas exploitation have significantly improved the quality of life. We achieved longer life spans, breakthroughs in medicine and science to cure and prevent illnesses and diseases, and increased food production, which improved diets, which is a stark contrast to what it was before the industrial revolution.
The global population has increased since the end of the 18th century from 1 billion to today’s almost 8 billion. Energy demand has risen sixfold in the past 50 years, most of which is powered by fossil fuels. As Global temperature has grown to 1°C since preindustrial times, weather-related natural disasters have also increased.
If climate change is caused by man, capitalism, or the giant fossil fuel companies, the solution would be to change men and their activities, replace capitalism with something kinder or gentler and force fossil fuel companies to shut down. But is this possible?
Fossil fuel and modernisation
Fossil fuels don’t just power our vehicles; surprisingly, the equipment and items that we use daily are sourced from fossil fuels. Our laptops, smartphones, and watches contain plastic components that are made from fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are also used to create vital ingredients – known as platform chemicals – which go into many essential items. Our everyday items are sourced from fossil fuels, including nail varnish remover and shampoo; and fabric, including the ones we wear, is made from Polyethylene which is synthesised from hydrocarbons.
Researchers from Loughborough University are trying to replace fossil fuel with organic alternatives – like converting biological waste into plastic, paint, and cosmetics in a post-petrochemical world. However, researchers wanted to ensure that sourcing these materials from nature would not result in competing for resources that would otherwise be used for homes or food.
What does it take to curb fossil fuel consumption?
Climate advocates recommend that developed countries curb their consumption, but even if they did, most of the world’s economic growth would come from developing countries.
For developing countries to not rely too much on fossil fuels nor continue exploiting them to feed their energy demands requires financial assistance from developed countries. And one way to do this is to transfer to them the latest technology.
Developed countries are allocating less than $1 billion a year to developing countries to help mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts. According to the article, the figure is not enough, but it should be at least ten times more.
Although natural gas is also a fossil fuel, it emits 50% less CO2 than coal. The good news is that renewable energy production and investment in on the rise. The bad news is that even with increased production, renewables will only account for 20% of our energy demand by 2035, so compromises will have to be made.
Experts recommend that natural gas be used as a transitory fuel from coal in the short term while accelerating the installation and use of renewable energy and investing in carbon capture and storage technologies.
As individuals, we are morally obligated to protect our planet through our daily changes and choices.
An article by Clint Manley gives some insights into how we could live in a world with fossil fuels. He writes that we can be more efficient with the matter in our control by creating a circular economy by using our waste energy to replace fossil fuel-driven power plants, recycle materials into usable goods, and find creative ways to save energy.
Fendt, L. (2021, June 22). Why did the IPCC choose 2° C as the goal for limiting global warming?. MIT Climate Portal. Retrieved from https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/why-did-ipcc-choose-2deg-c-goal-limiting-global-warming
Elliot, L. (2015, April 8). Can the world economy survive without fossil fuels? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/08/can-world-economy-survive-without-fossil-fuels
Nail varnish remover, shampoo and even fabrics, the surprising everyday items that originate from fossil fuels. (2022, July 6). Loughborough University. Retrieved from https://www.lboro.ac.uk/news-events/news/2022/july/what-would-a-world-without-fossil-fuels-look-like/
Manley, C. Will we ever live in a World without fossil fuels? Nexus. Retrieved from. https://nexuspmg.com/will-we-ever-live-in-a-world-without-fossil-fuels/