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Green Is The New Black

How Did We Get Here? Our Addiction To Fossil Fuels And What It Means For The World

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We need to talk about our addiction to fossil fuels. How did we get here? And by here, I mean the state of climatic emergency in which we currently find ourselves. But also, how did we get to the point where the use of oil, coal and gas are the world’s main energy source?

The significance of the Industrial Revolution

We need to rewind to the middle of the 18th century in England to understand where it all began. It was here that steam engines were first invented, and coal became an increasingly important energy source. And our relationship with using fossil fuels as a primary energy source was born. Surprisingly, after being used since antiquity, oil or petroleum didn’t really experience a commercial boom until the 19th century in the United States.

But oil is important too…

When it comes out of the ground, crude oil is a black, viscous liquid. It cannot be used as-is. Crude oil then passes into the hands of refineries, which are the factories that distil the oil. The oil is heated until the different substances it comprises separate from each other. The heavier ones remain at the bottom of the tank, while the lighter ones evaporate. In order of weight, we then obtain gas, petrol, kerosene, diesel and fuel oil.

Like petroleum, natural gas and coal are materials present in the earth’s subsoil. Their peculiarity is that they burn very well: they are excellent fuels. These are called hydrocarbons. They also have the advantage of being easily stored and transported, making them the most convenient source of energy to use.

A new level of comfort

Today, we use these hydrocarbons, also called fossil fuels, as our main sources of energy worldwide. Together, they represent 75% of all energy consumed. Humanity has been using them massively for less than 200 years. But, for most of history, they were of almost no interest to humans.

And it’s these energy sources which have enabled us to reach a level of comfort never acquired before. Air conditioning with open windows? Three cars in a garage? Paris to NY for last-minute weekends, smartphone parts travelling 80 times around the earth before landing in our hands, and Australian kiwis on a plate in Paris. You get the gist; we’ve become immune to the extravagance of our lifestyles.

Why do hydrocarbons pollute?

What price are we paying for the level of comfort that we have grown accustomed to? You see, hydrocarbons have three major drawbacks: the first is that when they burn, they release a lot of particles that pollute the atmosphere. We’ve all heard of CO2 (or carbon dioxide) but that’s not all. There’s also methane to consider (which is arguably more polluting than CO2) and multiple other greenhouse gases our atmosphere would be better off without.

The second issue is that their quantity on Earth is limited. These so-called fossil fuels took several hundred million years to form. So guess what? The stock won’t be renewed any time soon! At the rate that humanity uses them, we’ll run out in the not too distant future.

The third is that industrial operations allowing the production of fossil fuels are incredibly harmful to the environment. From deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats of biodiversity to the construction of tunnels and the use of large boats allowing the transport of these energies. The limitations of fossil fuels are obvious.

What is climate change?

Imagine the Earth as a living being that draws its energy from the sun. The sun sends rays to the Earth and some of these rays get absorbed (by our oceans), and others get reflected (by the snow and ice-covered poles). The solar energy captured by the oceans is transformed under the pressure of ocean currents and this phenomenon regulates our entire planet. Only here, two phenomena exacerbate the effects of climate change. First, the poles have largely melted (imagine it as though our global air conditioning has broken or is only half-working). And the fact that we burn hydrocarbons creates a layer of pollution invisible to the eye which increases the retention of solar energy within our globe.

Now, this is a very rudimental overview of climate change, but it’s the basics in a nutshell that are worth bearing in mind.

The role of banks in financing fossil fuels

Now that you (hopefully!) understand the origins of our fossil fuel addiction and its impact on the environment a little better, we need to talk about banks. Oil, in particular, is the energy of almost all transportation. Which is why its price is a fundamental lynchpin of the economy. And if there is one industry that understands this, it’s banking.

Banks have always played a central role in financing fossil fuels. Almost all of the major French banks today and worldwide finance, directly or indirectly, fund the construction of sites producing fossil fuels, from coal mines to on-shore and off-shore refineries. Our money, supposedly dormant in our accounts, is used to finance the system that is suffocating us. From HSBC to BNP, through agricultural credit… they are all complicit.

According to recent reports, there are 35 banks in Canada, China, Europe, Japan and the United States alone who have invested 2.7 trillion USD in fossil fuels between 2016 and 2019, in spite of the Paris Agreement. To provide some context as to how insane this is; the budget of national education in France is 53 billion. 

So who are the worst offenders? The medal goes to (drum roll) JPMorgan Chase, followed very closely by his American friends: Wells Fargo, Citi, and Bank of America. And in the same four years (2016 – 2019), RBC won the medal in Canada, MUFG in Japan, BNP and Barclays in Europe, and Bank of China in China.

The real impacts of climate change

There are so many consequences of global warming, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s the inevitable increase in temperatures, which in turn disrupts the climatic events of the earth on surfaces chosen by humans to develop (i.e. we’ve bulldozed over the natural environment and replaced it with concrete and tarmac). So where there was rain and agricultural areas historically, there is now drought and vice versa.

What is creepy with climate change is that events are isolated, not necessarily visible and that the links between the phenomena are not well established. But one thing is certain: 9 million people die each year from air pollution. In comparison, COVID-19 is a drop in the ocean.

And virus-based diseases like COVID-19 are now more likely to spread. Why? Because global warming increases the evaporation of water by 7%, which in turn causes hard and torrential rains, which then causes hardening of the soil and the creation of stagnant water areas. And that all makes perfect conditions for insects like the mosquito (which is actually the most dangerous animal in the world, after humans) to reproduce, carry viruses, and spread them.

The United Nations predicts that by 2050 there will be between 250 million and 1 billion climate refugees, including farmers and people who can no longer feed themselves or find water because of extreme weather events. If we do nothing about it, Earth will continue to warm and summers of 50 degrees and 50% less agricultural yield will become our new normal.

The debate between macro and micro-actions & The Paris Agreements

So, what do we do? Regarding energies, we can say that the world today is a bit divided in two. Between those who think that we should create technologies allowing us to continue to consume as we do now and the other half who think that we should adopt sober consumption habits, including stopping (or significantly overhauling our approach to) taking planes, reducing our consumption of meat, ban cars in town etc. I think it’s a mix of the two! And that there is a clear need to find alternatives to fossil fuels.

So what did we do? The Paris agreements were signed during COP21 in 2016, then chaired by Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs in France. It was a historic moment for greenies like me, and the whole world in fact (I hope everyone is a little greenie at heart!).

195 countries signed this agreement, including most of Europe, the USA and China. 195 countries that agree on something? A historic first! At the time it was an incredible achievement and a beacon of hope. A euphoria similar to the 1998 and 2018 World Cup (if you’re French, that is!). The agreements aim to set targets that will ensure we do not exceed warming in excess of 1.5°C compared to the pre-industrial era.

Limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5°C would mean that overall coal use must decrease by 80% between 2010 and 2030. In reality, that means a coal-fired plant must close every day by 2040

What came next was disappointing

In 2019, President Trump of the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreements; a policy which he describes as a “disaster” and a “job killer”. Yes, really: The United States, the second-largest emitter after China withdrew from The Paris Agreement. The announcement sent a devastating shock wave around the globe and was a significant blow to the climate movement

This is a big deal because although China produces the most emissions in the world (followed by the U.S) historically, it is the US who have contributed the most to emitting CO2. The USA also has the largest emission per capita.

And in France, we don’t necessarily do better. 62% of the French population is exposed to risks linked to global warming. France had promised to cap carbon emissions between 2015 and 2018. But this ceiling was exceeded by 72 million tonnes of carbon in 2019. France also had the objective of reducing its energy consumption by 7% in 2018 (compared to 2012). The actual decline is 0.2%.

The IPCC continues to sound the alarm. Antonio Guterres, Secretary of State for the UN, stated in September 2019 “If we do not change lifestyles urgently, it is not they that we risk sacrificing, but life itself. The climate crisis is a race we are losing.” Despite this, governments, including the French government, claim that there is no consensus among citizens on the action and therefore does not place this crisis on its agenda.

Why do cities have a crucial role to play?

Cities account for 55% of the world’s population, emit 70% of total emissions, and occupy only 3% of total land. So cities have an essential role in the implementation of the Paris Agreements. It’s not me saying it; it’s WWF. It has set up a program for cities with 20 cities, including in Africa, which aim for carbon neutrality by 2050.

In cities, between 40 and 60% of spaces are dedicated to cars …! In Milian, and thanks to  COVID-19, they have already made the promise to reduce the number of cars to make room for bikes and pedestrians. The quality of our air comes from nature, so it is essential to bring nature back to our cities. And I repeat, 9 million people die from air pollution each year.

Also, 10% of the richest emit half of our emissions. And half of the poorest emit less than 10%. Climate justice is also equal to social justice.

Four NGOs sue the French Government for not taking actions

In France, we still got serious! We mobilised. Have you heard of the century affair? Four associations including Oxfam, Greenpeace, Nicolas Hulot Foundation for Man and Nature have brought the French state to court. The groups demand respect for the 2004 constitution on the environment, the planet, and the protection of its inhabitants.

The case is supported by 2-million French signatories (including me and my best pals Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche). It is the largest online citizen mobilisation launched on December 18, 2018. And on February 15, 2019, the government considered that it is not at fault.

The case went to appeal, a period which can last up to two years. It is during this period that the state is supposed to file an additional brief which it has still not done. Yes, this seems a  little crazy; like using bows and arrows to exterminate bulldozers. But Why can’t it work?

Because the evidence is overwhelming, that it is urgent and that other countries have already done so. Indeed, we are not the first to have tried and succeeded; Switzerland, England, Belgium, Germany, Colombia, and Pakistan have already done so. The Netherlands too and have achieved a 25% reduction in emissions by 2020. If you want to act, there is still time to make your voice heard by helping to create a testimony of global warming in your city on the site of our case to all.

The creation of a democratic convention to implement measures to fight against climate change in France

In France, there is also another event that gives me hope. The Citizen Convention for Climate, an unprecedented democratic experience in France which aims to give voice to the citizens drawn by lot to accelerate the fight against climate change. I quote “its mandate is to define a series of measures allowing a reduction of at least 40% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990) in the spirit of social justice. ”

This convention was announced at the April 2019 press conference at the end of the great debate imagined by Macron.The first appointment took place October 4, 2019 with the aim of launching measurements in March 2020. No luck, COVID-19 slowed down the measurement output.

The 150 draws were divided into 5 working groups around the themes: To eat, Move, Use, To work, Produce

Concrete measures should come out in May. The participants of the convention insist on a faster and more radical application! Cross our fingers. You can watch the lectures on youtube

“Beyond coal”: Renewables

In terms of renewable energies, where are we exactly? The good news is, since the Paris agreements, the world has invested more than USD$546 billion in the carbon transition, but the bad news is that we would have had to invest an additional 1.6 billion each year in order to reach the targets set.

On the flip side, renewable energy has become an option available almost everywhere in the world. In 2018, 90 countries had more than 1 GW of energy from renewable sources, which can power 700,000 homes. And 30 countries had more than 10 GW of capacity for 7 million homes. And in 2018, renewable energies increased by 8% driven by wind and solar. And worldwide, more than 100 GW has been installed, which is enough to supply the equivalent of French demand.

With the Covid-19 crisis and according to the International Energy Agency, renewable energies are expected to increase by 5% this year and could represent 30% of total electricity. To give us a concrete European example, Germany is supplied with 47% of renewable energies in 2019, being in the right direction to reach its target of 65% for 2030. In the United Kingdom, and for the first time since the industrial revolution, renewable energies became the largest source of electricity at 38.9%

COVID-19 and fossil fuels

In conclusion, I propose a very simple and super-efficient way to move forward. Following Covid-19, the ECB is in the process of drafting a recovery plan for Europe. And the plan involves creating a lot of cash in order to revive businesses. Money plays an essential role in financing the ecological transition, so it is our duty to demand that this money does not go to polluters.

The NGO 350.org suggests that each of us send a letter to Christine Lagarde, the President of the ECB, I quote:

“I am writing to you today because I think that the response of the European Central Bank to the COVID-19 crisis could, unfortunately, worsen the climate crisis. In particular, I would like to ask you why the ECB does not seem to have taken steps to exclude the fossil industry and other highly polluting sectors from your asset purchase programs, including your emergency purchase program in a pandemic.

Since you took office as President of the ECB, you have argued loud and clear for climate action, recognising the risks posed by the climate crisis on financial stability but also the risks posed by the financial sector on the climate.

However, these risks do not seem to take into account the ECB’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. We, therefore, assume that fossil industry bonds are being purchased as part of this response. Nothing justifies the ECB’s financial support for companies whose central activity directly threatens the security and prosperity of citizens in Europe and in the rest of the world.

You have a historic responsibility. The ECB must play a crucial role in helping Europe to rebuild a better model at the end of this crisis, by financially supporting an ambitious “New Green Deal” project which will allow our economies to be more resilient, more sustainable, and fairer.”

If we haven’t done so yet, I suggest you go to the 350.org website and add your voice to the thousands of others campaigning to stop fossil fuels.

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Born and raised in Nice, France, Paula has been very soon attracted by Asia studying in Hong Kong University and later on moving to Singapore to start her career as a consultant in Circular Economy. Her dream is to make sustainability more mainstream and attractive for everyone through smart design and communications.