As the world grapples with an unprecedented confluence of devastating floods, wildfires and droughts, the debate about how to tackle the growing climate crisis is increasingly distorted by big-business interests promoting false remedies and deceptive narratives.
The fossil-fuel industry is a prime example. In a desperate attempt to divert attention from their historic responsibility for climate change, oil and gas companies are touting various speculative technological fixes. But the stark reality is that these companies engage in a stagnant strategy to enable pollution to persist.
Given the urgency of the threat posed by climate change, we must rally behind the only real solution: a rapid, equitable and complete phaseout of all fossil fuels. Coal, oil and gas are the primary drivers of climate disruption, accounting for more than 75% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions.
But the damage caused by fossil fuels is not limited to climate change. Fossil fuels and petrochemicals such as plastics, fertilizers and pesticides poison our air, water and food and perpetuate environmental injustice. Air and water pollution from fossil fuels leads to countless deaths and illnesses worldwide, and the plastic pollution crisis is visible evidence of the harmful effects of industry.
So reducing emissions is not enough. Mitigating the multifaceted environmental crisis we face requires addressing its root cause: fossil fuels. A complete phaseout of oil, gas and coal represents our greatest opportunity to reduce the catastrophic effects of global warming, limit average temperature rise to no more than 1.5C and secure our planet for future generations.
To this end, a growing coalition of governments, civil-society organizations, indigenous communities and concerned citizens around the world are rallying behind fossil fuel non-proliferation agreements. Representing an effective solution to the climate crisis, this proposed agreement will put us on a path to a sustainable future, leaving no room for continued reckless activity by oil and gas companies.
The fossil-fuel industry won’t go down without a fight. This is evident in its latest greenwashing and delay strategy: the suggestion that we can reduce emissions through technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and use. But CCS currently captures less than 0.1% of global emissions, has a decades-long history of over- and under-delivering, and is inefficient, expensive, and does nothing to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. Furthermore, carbon removal technologies that rely on CCS, such as bioenergy and direct wind capture with CCS (BECCS), pose significant risks, come with large uncertainties, and may preclude more effective near-term measures.
But those who naturally profit from business have other powerful weapons in their arsenal. A new diversionary technique gaining traction—primarily in the United States and among other major polluters—is solar geoengineering, also known as solar radiation modification (SRM). Proponents of this highly speculative and risky technofix believe that by spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere or manipulating clouds to “dim the sun,” they can at least temporarily mask some of the ill effects of global warming.
This approach, however, represents the ultimate false solution—a big Band-Aid with potentially catastrophic consequences, including the potential to change global precipitation patterns. And there’s an extra big concern: While carbon stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, sun-set particles in the stratosphere dissipate in a year or less, requiring constant renewal. Stopping solar geoengineering could trigger a catastrophic “termination shock,” causing global temperatures to rise so rapidly that humans and ecosystems cannot adapt.
Despite its flaws and risks, SRM is already distracting policymakers from the urgent task of phasing out fossil fuels. As the United States and the European Union research and discuss multilateral solar-geoengineering governance, a theoretical climate intervention strategy largely engaged in science fiction has emerged as a real and present threat to climate action and environmental justice.
The right approach to this high-risk technology is to prevent its development and deployment, as more than 400 leading academics from 50 countries called for an international non-use agreement on solar geoengineering by 2022. Avoid wasting valuable time thinking about SRM, and non-solutions.
In the coming weeks and months, political leaders will have the opportunity to demonstrate true climate leadership at key events such as the UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York on 20 September and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai later this year. They need to exploit these opportunities.
For starters, global leaders must follow the lead of countries like Vanuatu and Tuvalu — as well as countless cities, health institutions, academics and civil-society organizations — and commit to working toward a strong and clean fossil fuel non-proliferation agreement. By ensuring that no loopholes are left for industry to exploit, policymakers can prevent oil, gas and coal producers from delaying the inevitable decline of fossil-fuel-based economies.
Furthermore, governments must stop supporting the fossil-fuel economy by subsidizing CCS and carbon removal technologies, which only serve as cover for further industrial expansion. Political leaders must heed the call for an international agreement to prevent the development and deployment of solar geoengineering and refrain from normalizing this untested and dangerous technology as a viable climate policy option.
We must initiate a rapid and equitable transition away from fossil fuels. Our leaders owe it to future generations to address today’s climate emergency with real solutions. Dangerous distractions that prevent meaningful action must be rejected. The world is on fire, and there is no time to waste on illusory remedies.©2023 Project Syndicate
Lily Fuhr is director of the Fossil Economy Program at the Center for International Environmental Law.