WASHINGTON — Efforts to wean the world from fossil fuels to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change are facing a series of critical political tests over the next month.© Gina Ferazzi, FILE / TNS California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on September 13, 2018. © Rich Pedroncelli, STF / Associated Press California voters will decide whether to roll back gas tax increases, which could be a blow to efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions.
In Brazil, leading presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to pull that nation from the Paris climate accord ahead of a runoff election later this month. At the same time President Donald Trump, who is facing a pivotal midterm election next month, is moving ahead on his call to roll back restrictions not only on carbon emissions, but also tougher fuel-efficiency standards agreed to by automakers a decade ago.
Even in California, where environmental issues have long held primacy, voters will consider repealing a gasoline tax that would fund a historic build out of public transit and other infrastructure designed to reduce automobile use.
While global leaders, economists and even some oil executives warn of a coming reckoning for the fossil fuel industries, a growing political resistance is testing ability to progress beyond the goals laid out in the Paris agreement three years ago. In some cases, conservative politicians such as Trump and Bolsonaro are moving to protect fossil fuels, which represent 80 percent of the world’s energy supply.
More often, governments have struggled to make the policy moves promised in Paris while international relationships fray under increasing calls for economic protectionism both here and abroad.
“When you look at the geopolitical situation, everything that has happened since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015 has gone in the wrong direction,” said Eirik Waerness, senior vice president of macroeconomics and market analysis at the newly rebranded Norwegian oil giant Equinor. “Sanctions, protectionism, they reduce the possibility global politicians can act together to solve one of the biggest challenges humans have ever faced.”
It is far too early for anyone to claim victory or concede defeat in what is expected to be a decades long and historically difficult effort to stop the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius, the target set by the Paris accords. But the recent political static could potentially offer a reprieve for the Texas oil industry, which many expect will see demand for its product peak in decades to come.
Some forecasts predict peak oil demand before 2030, such as those of the international oil company Royal Dutch Shell, , see improving technology in electric cars and renewable energy combined with governments imposing increasingly higher costs on greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable forces that oil companies ignore at their peril. But as the post-signing elation of Paris fades, the hard reality of raising energy costs is giving many politicians pause, particularly in impoverished nations seeking to bring their populations up to the standards of developed countries like the United States.
“There is a feeling among a lot of populations anything that might cost them more money is something they’re treating with great suspicion,” said Neal Atkinson, head of the oil division at the International Energy Agency.
Central to the climate change debate is the price society must pay now to protect future generations from an environmental disaster the scale of which is difficult to imagine and contextualize. So far, many consumers are showing evidence they are not willing to accept higher costs. In California, for example, Governor Gerry Brown has spent the last decade putting in place steps to reduce his state’s carbon emissions.
But now Republican activists are calling for a repeal of a gasoline tax that was set to put more than $1 billion into expanding state transit systems and another $100 million into pedestrian and cycling infrastructure — elements considered critical to shifting people out of carbon-emitting vehicles.
“It’s definitely close. It’s always hard to bet against lowering taxes. There’s a natural consistency,” said Jim Newton, a politics lecturer at University of California-Los Angeles. “This is a heavily Democratic state, but this has given Republicans something to run on.”
For now, at least, peak oil demand theory is holding strong amongst some analysts. Atkinson said that by 2040 global oil consumption could fall to 80 million barrels a day, compared to an average of 99 million barrels a day in 2018.
“There will be a peak at some point,” he said. “The issue is when it will be.”
France, United Kingdom, China, Ireland, Scotland, Israel and Costa Rica have all announced plans to ban the sale of carbon emitting vehicles, in some cases as early as 2030. China has announced plans to plant enough carbon dioxide-sucking forests to cover Ireland.
Corporations the world over are shifting toward reducing emissions. Exxon Mobil announced earlier this month it would donate $1 million over the next two years to the political group Americans for Carbon Dividends, which is pushing Congress to adopt a carbon tax, which acts as an incentive to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
But it’s not nearly enough to adequately address climate change, said Rafe Pomerance, a veteran environmental activist and senior fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a research center in Massachusetts. Policy makers focused on climate change describe the need for governments worldwide to coordinate efforts to start imposing higher costs on industry for carbon emissions, while at the same time rapidly expand wind and solar energy and developing technology that captures carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels before it is released into the atmosphere.
“The political commitment isn’t there to deal with it yet,” Pomerance said. “If Brazil pulled out of the Paris agreement it would be a big deal. If you lose leadership, you start to worry.”
For climate scientists, anything that slows down the world’s transition to a zero-carbon economy is a terrifying prospect.
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body tasked with studying the earth’s climate, issued a report warning that if warming was left unchecked as soon as 2040 the world could suffer devastating food shortages, wildfires, flooded coastlines, and the mass destruction of coral reefs . To avoid that outcome, carbon emissions would need to be cut nearly in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
“It is physically, chemically possible, but the question is, is it humanly possible?” Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC said recently at a panel discussion in Washington.
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