When environmental advocates implore less-wealthy countries to cease oil or gas investment and production because it is the cause of climate change, they are often branded as naive and ridiculous. Do we really expect, in the cold light of day, that nations will comply? The developing world can claim—in a perfectly reasonable and compelling way—that the well-being and growth in living standards of their own people is a short-term necessity, and that longer term, issues can only be fixed with revenue from sales of fossil fuels. They could rightly ask why they should limit their national development when they have a single viable path out of financial destitution.
We must adapt our well-meaning demands to give flexibility for those who, for local reasons, cannot realistically cease fossil fuel production. Rather, we must act to address the global problem ourselves. All wealthy oil and gas producing nations can and should make a change to dramatically reduce fossil fuel production and use immediately. We have the wealth. We can absorb the pain. There really is no excuse for inaction locally. We must focus on cleaning up our own backyards by limiting (and ultimately reversing) the damage from our own fossil fuel production. We can do this by turning them off as quickly as possible, reducing our outputs decisively, and then by driving a change in consumption patterns from our populations. That’s a pain we should assume as soon as possible, because we have alternatives and we have the ability to do so.
Helping the World Transition
Developing countries cannot absorb the financial pain or impose the results of turning off fossil fuel revenues on their populations. In the short term, they could (and maybe should) be encouraged to replace some of the lost production globally—resulting from developed countries dramatically scaling back their operations—and gain increased revenue for their economies. They could make hay while the sun shines, using this to make sensible, informed investment decisions to build a more robust diversified long-term economy.
Overall, and over time, global production would still decrease because the consumer demand from the developed world would decrease, but in this crucial transition period, the developing countries would get a fair crack at accessing fossil fuel revenues to accelerate growth and raise living standards within their populations. This isn’t the instant win demanded by idealists, but it is a practical approach that could work.
If we went this route, we must ask ourselves a different question: how can rich countries help make continued fossil fuel production by others less harmful? Instead of screaming “turn it off,” we must reframe the conversation and offer to help developing countries stop polluting. Our efforts under this concept would be to put our impressive research and innovation capability into developing tools, technologies, and processes that limit or remove the negative impacts of fossil fuel extraction. We could help the developing world extract fossil fuels in a cleaner way by exporting our high-tech green products.
Aligning Incentives with Desired Outcomes
The significant incentive regimes—the tax breaks—that currently encourage highly developed nations to produce hydrocarbons need to be overhauled as soon as possible. We must align those mechanisms with our revised ambitions and remove local production incentives immediately. To hasten the transition of our fossil fuel industries to a majority service and technology export–led model (rather than production-led), we should repurpose some of the incentive regimes to subsidize the development of greener extraction solutions and support their uptake by the developing world. This would ease our industry’s short-term pain and protect local jobs, whilst assisting our global net-zero goals. Given the substantial scale of the numbers involved, we could then take remaining sums to add further inducement to our renewables industry locally, and to support the retraining and transitioning of our fossil fuel workforce.
We can make these low-emissions technologies more attractive by pricing them competitively. In our drive for net-zero, we would subsidise them over the traditional solutions to encourage their uptake and use. That would include helping support fuel-hungry chemical plants, concrete, or steel works to adopt our high-tech export of carbon capture and storage, and greenhouse gas capture technologies to remove harmful emissions. Longer term, we could help countries to locally refine their fossil fuels into useful non-polluting products, such as hydrogen or base chemicals, to become long-term exporters of green commodities rather than polluting fossil fuels.
A Realistic and Workable Approach
So, should we accept the reality of continued fossil fuel production in the developing world, while applying our skills to avoid/limit the damage done to the planet and to our economies? The solution is imperfect—it’s a non-ideal, twisting route to the end of fossil fuels—but, this more pragmatic idealism would limit the economic and social shocks to all of us, be fairer, and, I would argue, could even mean a faster global transition to a new world of sustainable energy.
—Phil Hart, PhD is a professor and director of Energy and Power at Cranfield University.