energy

It's unavoidable: we must ban fossil fuels to save our planet. Here's how we do it | Roland Geyer


Time is running out to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change. The 2018 special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “suggests a remaining budget of about 420 Gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 for a two-thirds chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.” The clock on this so-called remaining carbon budget started ticking at the beginning of 2018. Despite this stark warning, the world keeps emitting over 40 Gt of CO2 per year. In other words, the policy instruments that are currently being used across the globe to reduce CO2 emissions aren’t working. It is therefore time to ban fossil fuels.

Since we have already drawn down over 120 Gt of CO2 from this carbon budget, we have now less than 300 Gt left. Combining the proved fossil fuel reserves reported in British Petroleum’s Statistical Review of World Energy with CO2 emission factors from the IPCC yields 3,600 Gt of CO2 emissions. This means that we can only afford to burn one twelfth of the fossil fuels we have already found. And this does not account for any greenhouse gas emissions from the ongoing melting of permafrost. The Arctic region alone is estimated to have 1,500 Gt of carbon stored in its soils, some of which is already being converted to CO2 by microbes and released into the atmosphere.

Twice before we managed to mitigate a severe global environmental threat. In both cases we did this with the help of bans. Not with cap and trade systems, not with taxes, not with offsets, not with capture and sequestration, but with bans.

The first example is leaded gasoline. In 1923, General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey formed the Ethyl Corporation to manufacture and market a highly toxic substance called tetraethyl-lead (TEL) as antiknock. Medical and public health experts almost immediately warned of the risks of chronic lead exposure, yet the Ethyl Corporation insisted that irrefutable proof was required before any action be taken. By the 1960s, TEL was in virtually all US gasoline and was quickly expanding across the globe. It made some people very rich, many people sick, and caused catastrophic levels of lead pollution. It took over 60 years until leaded gasoline finally started to be phased out and banned all over the world. After the ban, lead levels in humans and the environment immediately started to plummet.

The second example is chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. In 1930, General Motors and DuPont formed the Kinetic Chemical Company to produce and market CFCs as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, and solvents under the brand name Freon. The large growth in refrigeration, air conditioning, and spray cans made Freon products a huge commercial success. However, in 1974, scientists showed that CFCs ended up in the stratosphere and thinned out its ozone layer, which protects humans, animals, and plants from excessive UV light exposure. While DuPont suggested that the scientific evidence was not enough to warrant dramatic CFC emission reductions, the public became increasingly worried about the growing stratospheric ozone depletion. The famous Montreal Protocol from 1987 laid out a global plan for phasing out and banning CFCs. The ozone layer is now slowly recovering.

Man-made climate change is a bigger threat than even global lead pollution and stratospheric ozone depletion. The IPCC urges us to bring global human-caused CO2 emissions to net zero as quickly as we can. A phase-out and ban of fossil fuels is the best way to get us there. We are running out of time for long deliberations about the right level of carbon tax or the best way to improve the effectiveness of cap and trade systems. It is time to ban fossil fuels.

One necessary condition for a ban is the existence of viable substitutes. In the case of lead in gasoline it turned out to be ethanol. Ironically and tragically, it was already well–known in the 1920s that ethanol was an effective antiknock. DuPont started to look for CFCs replacements fairly soon after their ozone depletion potential was discovered and had them in place by the time the Montreal protocol was signed. While in practice bans may allow for some exceptions, the stated goal of complete phase-out is important because it instigates the development of any missing substitutes.

The good news is that the substitutes for fossil fuels not only exist, but are also cost-competitive. Utility-scale solar and wind power is now officially the cheapest source of electricity, even without subsidies. The cost of battery storage has fallen by 90% over ten years and continues to decline. The lifetime cost of battery electric vehicles is already lower than that of internal combustion vehicles. Compared to gas furnaces, heat pumps frequently reduce the cost of heating. In other words, we already have cost-effective technologies to implement a fossil fuel phase-out and ban.

Partial fossil fuel bans are already happening and highly effective. Thirty US states have so-called renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which are essentially gradual phase-outs of fossil fuels in electricity generation. California’s Senate Bill 100 effectively bans fossil fuels from the California grid by 2045. In September 2020, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, signed an Executive Order that phases out gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Only four months later, Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, announced that the company would stop making internal combustion vehicles by the same year. The City of Santa Barbara in California is considering a building code amendment that would require new buildings to be all-electric, thus phasing out natural gas use in buildings.

These are important steps towards avoiding the worst effects of climate change, but the next one must be to ban fossil fuels overall. In fact, we can’t afford not to.

  • Roland Geyer is a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California at Santa Barbara. His book The Business of Less: The Role of Companies and Households on a Planet in Peril will be published this fall



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