Can anyone defuse the 'Carbon Bomb'?

Greenpeace's new report deserves to make headlines around the world, but a dysfunctional political and economic system guards against action

22 Jan 2013, 14:56

Earlier this afternoon, I tweeted that I was "trying not to think about this new Greenpeace report too hard, because the implications are absolutely terrifying".

The report in question is the Point of No Return study from Greenpeace and Ecofys, which argues that 14 giant "carbon bomb" fossil fuel projects that are currently in planning have the potential to drive up global emissions 20 per cent by 2020 on their own, making it almost impossible to avoid global temperature rises of five to six degrees Centigrade. I failed in trying not to think about, mainly because it is so horribly thought-provoking.

Here are five quick points that the report immediately raises for me; unfortunately most of them do not make for pretty reading:

1) This report is very, very scary. Greenpeace is one of the world's most effective campaigning organisations, but does anyone seriously think it will be successful in getting all of these 14 "carbon bomb" mega-projects cancelled? One or two, perhaps, just maybe. But all 14? Not a chance. Barring a genuine miracle technology breakthrough or a series of staggering policy u-turns from the world's most carbon intensive nations and companies we really are in a lot of trouble. I'm not completely ruling out some kind of breakthrough, but it is becoming increasingly clear that is what we are relying on.

2) What a powerful way to frame the debate. "Carbon bomb" is a remarkably resonant term. For too long environmental campaigners and green businesses have spoken about "carbon emissions" and "climate change" and "sustainability". It is time to talk of "climate crisis", "gargantuan carbon bubbles", and "carbon bombs". Setting up the fossil fuel companies as the enemy might be somewhat unfair (we all rely on and consume their product), but supplying these 14 projects as a clear and present target makes it much easier for environmentalists to build momentum for this most important of campaigns. Fossil fuel companies and investors should be aware that if they have been concerned about reputational risks in recent years then they ain't seen nothing yet.

3) What is wrong with our political leaders? We all know there are immense short term political challenges in taking action to tackle climate change. But at the same time climate change increasingly looks like an existential threat and the forces protecting the status quo look staggeringly isolated and self-interested. The demands for action are no longer limited to green NGOs and climate scientists, they are being led by the institutional elite: the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, PwC, Ernst & Young, Accenture, the CBI, Bill Gates, General Electric, Warren Buffett, and many, many others. Consistent majorities of the public also say they favour green development and action to tackle climate change. Yes, things get more difficult when the short term costs associated with the low carbon transition start to filter through. But it is not like there is an absence of innovative and potentially effective policy ideas out there to draw on, as the World Economic Forum's important report calling for measures to create investment-grade green infrastructure projects proved this week. The old politicos' argument that there isn't the political space to try and seriously tackle climate change is the worst kind of bullshit. Politicians are elected to lead, it is time for some leadership.

4) What is wrong with our fossil fuel companies and investors? With a few notable exceptions fossil fuel companies employ intelligent, well intentioned, and (as recent events have sadly proved) remarkably brave people. For decades they have provided the energy that has driven the global economy, a global economy that for all its myriad flaws and injustices has dragged billions of people out of poverty. So why are they falling victim to the most dysfunctional example of debilitating group think in human history? Last year, BP released an outlook report that contained the barely commented on prediction that global greenhouse gas emissions will rise 28 per cent by 2030, and that was with huge investment in renewables. Intelligent people at the top of these companies know they are putting the economy on the path towards a catastrophic future and yet somehow they are rationalising their decisions in order to keep ramping up fossil fuel investment. I can understand the thinking behind some continued investment in fossil fuels, but it is utterly bemusing that these companies aren't also investing more heavily in renewables, nuclear, and, most importantly for their continued existence, carbon capture and storage and even geo-engineering. Just as it is equally bemusing that institutional investors have not yet woken up to the inherent risks associated with projects that will put the world on track to five or six degrees of warming this century. The "carbon bubble" is as real as the "carbon bomb".

5) The rewards for those who defuse the "carbon bomb" will be massive. The only way to stop or undermine the planned "carbon bomb" projects is to offer an alternative that is more attractive in both the short term as well as the long term - after all we live in the short term, and, as the old adage goes, in the long term we're all dead. Anyone working for a business that is trying to develop technologies and business models that can slash emissions in a cost effective manner needs to somehow inject these already urgent projects with yet more urgency. The "carbon bomb" is in danger of going off. We have never needed the clean tech bomb disposal team more.

  
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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