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Comment: Is the world’s fossil fuel ‘addiction’ an illusion?

Comment: Johan L. Kuylenstierna from the SEI argues the answers to cutting our reliance on oil and gas are surprisingly simple

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By Johan L. Kuylenstierna

I am often asked what it will take to successfully address climate change.

My first response is that we need a positive vision about the future and human ingenuity.

Studies clearly show that doomsday scenarios are not effective triggers of action; it is the true conviction that you (as an individual or a society) with your actions actually can contribute to positive change and a better future.

My second response is that we must recognize that it will take real effort. Yes, there are many benefits to climate action, even in the short term, but there are costs as well.

We cannot underestimate the challenges of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. After all, what we seek is nothing less than a revolution – and revolutions can be painful, especially for those who are thriving under the status quo.

In the current world order, that means industrialized countries that built our economies with fossil fuels, and emerging economies that are following our example.

Businesses are reaping large profits from producing fossil fuels, often with devastating environmental impacts beyond carbon emissions. To make things worse, every year, governments pump more than $500 billion USD of subsidies into fossil fuel-based energy – some $50-90 billion within the OECD countries alone.

I was at the conference Climate from the Nordic-Baltic Perspective: Science, Policy, Economy in Estonia last week, which was co-organized by SEI’s Tallinn Centre.

It was a true melting pot of perspectives: policy, science, business and civil society, but all agreed that current policies and practices favour continued fossil fuel production and consumption.

We may talk about the urgent need for strong climate policies and a global climate deal, but the economic incentives are pulling in the opposite direction.

New SEI-US analysis highlights how countries that export fossil fuels can even have it both ways: because exports don’t count towards their greenhouse-gas inventories, they can reduce emissions at home and look like climate success stories, even as they reap fossil-fuel profits.

The question now is, what are we going to do about it?

Can we end harmful subsidies, and find constructive ways to mitigate the economic impacts?

Can the European Union – long a leader in climate action – stop back-sliding and save its Emissions Trading Scheme, not through inadequate “quick fixes”, but through increased demand from ambitious mitigation targets?

Does anyone now profiting from fossil fuels – oil-rich Norway, shale oil pioneer Estonia, or the many coal exporters and consumers amongst us – have the courage to shift course and invest in renewable technologies?

It can be difficult to do the right thing, but often the results are surprisingly positive.

Between 1990 and 2011, the 28 current EU countries decreased their emissions by nearly 17% while growing their GDP by 45%. And the International Energy Agency reports that between 2005 and 2010, efficiency measures saved 11 IEA member countries the energy equivalent of $420 billion USD worth of oil.

The latest science shows time is running short. Every day that we postpone serious action makes it harder to avoid dangerous climate change, and more expensive to catch up later.

We know what is wrong, and we know how to do better.

As Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” We need to believe that positive change is possible and, individually and collectively, start taking steps forwards.

Johan L. Kuylenstierna is executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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