To achieve climate justice the world must leave fossil fuels in the ground

Published on 4 November 2021

Power Shift Africa

University of Sussex

The climate crisis is fuelled by a global development model built on historical extractivism with the ongoing unequal exchange of resources causing unprecedented threats, especially for the world’s poor. These threats are manifested in extreme weather events and disruption of food and water systems critical to the livelihoods of the poor, while exacerbating inequalities and deprivations along racial, gender, class and other axes of social exclusion.

The current trajectory points to a disastrous future, especially for already disadvantaged societies. This makes it urgent to shift from a global development model fuelled by fossils to one that can help build a fossil-free, climate-resilient future as part of transformative systemic change, as discussed in a new online first IDS Bulletin article ‘Cutting the Supply of Climate Injustice’.

Evidence from the IPCC, United Nations and even the International Energy Agency highlights the need for radical and absolute shifts in our energy systems. These shifts need to address the injustices caused by the climate crisis and the role of fossil fuelled energy systems in perpetuating it. Historical climate injustices need to be accounted for with richer countries having over-used their share of the atmospheric carbon budget and caused the climate crisis, these countries need to own up to their climate debt by taking primary responsibility for the pollution they have generated by the wealth they have extracted.

These injustices do not just lie in the past; historical racial, gender and class inequities are worsening the situation today. The organisation of a global economy that has marginalised and rendered vulnerable the racial majority needs to be challenged. This means recognising and addressing the injustices that have been visited on those at the frontline of extreme extractivism, displacement and dispossession and the dumping of the waste and ‘externalities’ created by the accumulation of wealth in richer parts of the world and by richer social groups. Generational inequities continue to be reflected in vast disparities in emissions and contributions to the perpetuation of climate injustice.

Now is the time for rich countries to move beyond rhetoric and deep-seated colonial attitudes towards tackling the grave global inequities manifested in climate injustices. The climate crisis is slowing down progress in poorer countries and further widening the inequality gap between and within poorer and wealthier countries.

Mobilisation to move beyond fossil fuels

Hope comes from the growing number of social movements, civil society organizations and some governments that are seeking to move beyond the fossil fuel economy and its attendant inequalities. Concrete and bold strategies need to be developed that ensure a just transition from global economies that are dependent on polluting fossil fuels that leave the world’s frontline communities vulnerable to climate threats. This includes stepping up efforts to challenge the lending practices of bodies such as the World Bank and governments that promote investments in fossil fuels. Governments are planning to extract 120 percent more fossil fuels than are compatible with the goals of the Paris agreement while G20 members still provide at least three times as much public finance for fossil fuels (USD 77 billion) as for clean energy (USD 28 billion) every year.

Future climate negotiations, including COP26 in Glasgow, need to develop a global financing regime that shifts from subsidies, aid and private investment for fossil fuels towards abundant renewable energy sources especially in the majority world’s poor regions. This has to occur alongside major efforts to reduce energy demand in the first place. For this to happen, the political influence of the polluter elite must be challenged through greater regulation and transparency around representation and the political contributions from fossil fuel companies to government officials.

Another route to accountability is litigation against individual fossil fuel projects and companies which creates precedent for holding polluting companies to account for climate harms. Pursuing compensation for loss and damage is proving to be another approach in the struggle to gain climate justice. These legal mechanisms that push for leaving fossil fuels in the ground are gaining momentum and offer pathways for resistance to new fossil fuel projects building on the momentum generated by the Powering Past Coal Alliance and the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.

Weaning ourselves off our fossil fuel addiction also means shifting the geopolitics of energy away from regressive and unstable petrostates. Homegrown renewables boost energy security and resilience in the face of future energy crises and being held to ransom by OPEC state or major gas producers such as Russia.

Keeping coal, oil, and gas in the ground is a boon for the local environment. Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is an increasingly lethal public health threat. The move to electric vehicles powered by renewables will transform cities currently choked with petrol and diesel fumes producing numerous public health benefits. Coal power stations are a curse on anyone unfortunate enough to live near them with a just transition providing the opportunity to retrain workers for green jobs in a low carbon economy.

We are living through a critical moment where social movements need to better organise in order to achieve much-needed climate justice. Social movements, civil society organisations and governments need to keep focused on the elephant in the room: the need to radically shift away from a development model based on fossil fuels. They should work to turn off the tap of finance for the fuels driving climate chaos and seek compensation for the world’s poor. This will be the single most effective approach to prevent further climate injustices.


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