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Fossil Fuel Lobby in the Driver’s Seat at Doha

New report shows global warming can be kept well under two degrees C as long as fossil fuels remain underground

This article originally appeared in Inter Press Service

Doha, Qatar — A new scientific report shows that global warming can be kept well under two degrees C, but only if most of the known deposits of coal, oil and gas remain in the ground.

smokestacks Photo: public domainSolar, wind and other forms of renewable energy received only 88 billion dollars
in subsidies, one-sixth of the amount given to the highly profitable fossil fuels
sector.

The problem is no country is doing anywhere near enough to keep fossil fuels in the ground, according to the Climate Action Tracker released Friday on the sidelines of the U.N. climate change negotiations here in Doha, Qatar.

In fact, countries are going in the wrong direction, spending 523 billion dollars in 2011 in public tax money to subsidise the burning of fossil fuels, said Michiel Schaeffer, a scientist with Climate Analytics that produces the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) with Dutch energy consulting organization Ecofys and Germany’s Pik Potsdam Institute.

“The 2011 subsidies for fossil fuels were a 30-percent increase over 2010, according to the IEA (International Energy Agency),” Schaeffer told IPS.

By contrast, the IEA said that solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy received only 88 billion dollars in subsidies, one-sixth of the amount given to the highly profitable fossil fuels sector.

Even though 194 states and the European Union are here at COP18 to ensure the heating of the planet stays below two degrees, they are not discussing how to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels. Instead, the five days of negotiations thus far have largely revolved around creating schemes for carbon credits and debates over money to help poor countries survive current and future global warming impacts.

Countries have come to Doha unprepared to make the necessary commitments to actually stay below two degrees.

“There have been a number of voices suggesting (that) keeping temperatures below two degrees C is not possible. That simply isn’t true. It is perfectly feasible,” said Schaeffer.

A two-degree C pathway that is economically feasible would require 15-percent cuts in global emissions by 2020 from present levels. In 2011, emissions rose 3.2 percent, and 5.9 percent in 2010.

Two degrees, and even getting below 1.5 degrees C, remains technically and economically feasible. But “only with political ambition backed by rapid action starting now”, according to the CAT report.

“We have to start now, not wait until 2020 to act,” said Bill Hare, head of Climate Analytics. “If we wait, we won’t have many choices left.”

Rapid action before 2020 means far lower costs – less than one percent of global GDP when spread over a number of years. Delay means far higher costs and dubious strategies like massive biofuel plantations, more nuclear plants, and as yet unproven large-scale carbon capture and storage.

If emissions do not peak and decline before 2020, it is still technically possible to stay below two degrees. However, depending on how high the emission peak is, it could be far too expensive to accomplish, as well as having enormous social impacts, said Schaeffer.

“Delay means dumping the enormous costs of action or the even larger costs from climate impacts on the next generation – our children and grandchildren,” he said.

No country is doing enough to prevent this, said Ecofys director of energy and climate policy, Niklas Höhne. Many nations don’t yet have the policies to meet their promised reductions – which in themselves are inadequate, said Höhne.

The U.S., for example, is not doing nearly enough before 2020. It could easily reduce emissions from its coal-fired power plants, increase investments in renewables, and increase the rather low energy efficiency of its buildings, he told IPS.

Commenting on the current glacial pace of negotiations, Schaeffer said, “In my opinion, it should not be so hard to figure out how to make reductions.”

However, powerful vested interests in the fossil fuel sector are fighting action on climate. They have a strong lobby in governments while the low-carbon energy sector is still a relatively small industry, he said.

“There many in the fossil fuel industry who think they have everything to lose in the needed transformation of the energy sector,” Schaeffer noted.

Stephen Leahy
Stephen is an independent journalist who covers international environmental issues in the public interest. He's reported from every continent in the world over the past 20 years. The bulk of his journalism in recent years has been for the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) as senior correspondent for science and the environment. IPS is a non-profit news service headquartered in Rome with a focus on events and issues affecting the developing world. His work also appears in National Geographic NewsWatch, New Scientist, Mo Magazine (Brussels), The Guardian (UK), Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Toronto Star, Common Dreams, Alternet and many others. To continue this work at a time of severe cutbacks and closure of many media, Leahy launched Community Supported Journalism, please visit the link and offer your support.

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