Why even a soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Dr Frederick Guy, Senior Lecturer in Management, explains how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will hamper efforts to combat climate change and bolster the power of Putin and other major fossil fuel exporters.

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin
I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU.

In Britain, where anti-Brexit arguments have focused on the damage to the UK economy and the threat to peace in Ireland, a very soft Brexit is alluring: some kind of Norway ++ which keeps the UK essentially in both the Single Market and the Customs Union, but removes it from the political institutions of the EU. In British politics such an outcome would of course be a sorry face-saving compromise, letting politicians claim to have left the EU while retaining the economic advantages of membership (at some considerable cost in the form of lost voice in making the economic rules). For Putin, though, it would be a great victory, because what threatens Putin is a coherent West- and Central European voice on climate policy. The more he can fragment the EU – through the withdrawal of a big actor like Britain, and the discord which follows – the better off he is.

We can’t know how large a factor Putin has been in the political successes of Trump and Brexit. Obviously, there’s a lot more behind the surge of nationalism around the world than such plutocratic manipulation. Yet propaganda does work – ask Goebbels, ask Maddison Avenue, ask any company or political party that invests in public relations or advertising. And just the fact that Putin has made such obvious efforts to influence domestic politics in so many countries, raises the question of why he would do so.

Geopolitics in the anthropocene
I am writing here about the power of the oligarchs of oil: about the politics of plutocracy, and also about geo-politics.

The oligarchs of oil are just one segment of the larger plutocracy which afflicts our age. The oil oligarchs present us with a different set of problems than other oligarchs, however; our diagnosis of these problems is hindered if we think of plutocracy, or of capitalism, as one undifferentiated thing.

The other most prominent members of the plutocratic class have fortunes based on locking down parts of the digitized network economy (Amazon, Google, Microsoft,  privatized telephone networks, and so on), or on the extravagant protections now offered intellectual property (notable in pharma, biotechnology, and certain profitable corners of publishing). We might add to this list fortunes from the world of finance, but finance needs something to finance, and it is the monopoly sectors of the “real” economy – both in natural resources like oil and in information resources – which nourish finance. So let us speak simply of oil oligarchs and information oligarchs.

The two groups of oligarchs have a common interest in preventing the public from taking away their unearned hoards of wealth. The information oligarchs fear laws that would restore both our digital networks and our funds of accumulated knowledge to their proper state as a commons without monopolist tollgates – in short, that we will make their products free. The fossil fuel oligarchs fear that we will simply stop using their products. If justice ever comes for the information oligarchs it will be a piecemeal and prolonged set of battles, leaving the principals humbled but probably well heeled. The oil oligarchs, on the other hand, have their backs against the wall: they know that the health of the biosphere requires that their euthanasia – to borrow a technical economic term from Keynes – comes soon.

We can also think of what Putin and his ilk do in terms of state power – they act not merely as wealthy and influential individuals but as rulers – and thus of geo-politics. At first blush, we might think in terms of traditional Great Power or superpower rivalries. Putin’s politics, however, are about oil. And the geo-politics of oil is no longer primarily about control of the oil supply, but about the right to keep selling it. Any effective climate policy will sharply reduce demand for fossil fuels, which will mean, even if it is not all left in the ground, that both the quantity sold and the price will fall – shredding colossal oil fortunes.

If it seems far-fetched to reduce the policy objectives of a large state, once a superpower and still possessed of a huge nuclear arsenal, to permission to sell a single product, just look at the dependence of Russia on fuel (oil, gas, coal) exports. In 2017 – the latest year for which the World Bank provides these figures – Russia’s net exports of fuel amounted to 13% of GDP – an astonishing level for a country of that size. The only countries with higher levels of dependence on oil exports are states, like the Gulf monarchies, which produce little else (see Figure 1). Leaving the oil in the ground would not destroy Russia – if anything, it would free the country from the influence of oil, which entrenches corruption and despotism, and crowds out most other economic initiative – but it would destroy Russia’s oligarchy.

Figure 1

This is why the interests of the Russian state and the House of Saud, despite their quarrel over dominance in Syria and the Gulf, align at the global level: they need to block the emergence of institutions of international governance capable of dealing with the problem of climate change.

Governing climate change
The governance problem is well known: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires deep changes to our material way of life; attendant social changes; and vast investments in new clean technologies and clean infrastructure. Moreover, we have dallied so long that, in order to have any realistic hope of preventing very dangerous climate change, we need to decarbonize fast (Figure 2) – meaning that the process will be more expensive, more socially disruptive, and more politically difficult than it would have been had action been taken when the problem was first understood some decades ago.

Figure 2. Past delays mean that rapid decarbonization is necessary for climate stabilization. Graph from http://folk.uio.no/roberan

What nation will undertake such changes without the assurance that other nations will do so as well? Technically, this is what we call a “collective action problem”, a prisoner’s dilemma game with many players, blown up to the global level. Agreements are made – in Porto Alegre, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris – but there is nobody to enforce them, and greenhouse gasses continue to accumulate.

Dealing with climate change of course requires action at every level, from the global down to individual and community choices about how to live and what to consume. But without an overall grip on the collective action problem between countries, there won’t be effective national policies in most countries. And without effective national policies, the efforts of individuals and local communities will be weakened by the knowledge that others are taking no action, and so will not add up to enough.

For the past quarter century we have had climate agreements which have no teeth. There is no prospect of having an actual global government to enforce the agreements. How, then, do collective action problems get solved at a global level? Some say it only happens in periods of history when single hegemonic power – notably, Britain from the defeat of Napoleon until the mid-1800s, and the USA in the decades after World War II – had the weight to enforce international rules of trade and finance (rules used, of course, to the hegemon’s advantage); the same might serve for rules about greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no single dominant world power to play that role today.

Our best hope – is it shocking that it has come to a point where this is something more to hope for than to fear? – is that a small number of very large powers would act in concert as leaders, and enforcers, of international agreements to cut greenhouse gasses. The method of enforcement could be a combination of threatened withdrawal of access to export markets, and conditions placed on foreign investment.

What countries could exercise such power? In Figure 3a I plot the GDP and the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s 25 largest economies – again, treating the EU as one country. Note that I have used ratio (logarithmic) scales, so the differences between the larger and smaller countries are compressed on the graph, but even so three big ones stand out in both GDP and emissions: China, the USA, and the EU. Big as they are, if these three giant economies decarbonized, it would not be enough to stop global warming. But all other countries depend on access to these three big markets, and investment from them. Individually, none is globally hegemonic; together, they could fill that role.

Figure 3

Figure 3b plots the same information, but with the EU split up. This leaves the US, China, and then a large mass of mid-sized emitters: six of the 25 biggest CO2 emitters are members of the EU. It is within in the mass of mid-size CO2 emitters that the collective action problem becomes overwhelming, each saying “after you”, each proposing actions that will shift costs to others. It is a recipe for non-action, for fatal delay, and that is why Putin needs to make the EU ineffective as a political unit. If you add to that the effective side-lining of the USA – its de facto alliance with Putin and the House of Saud – this configuration leaves no plausible leader, no plausible enforcer, for climate policy.

It may seem a faint hope any of that those three powers – China, the EU, and the USA – will actually choose to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it is, but other hopes are fainter still. And, if it were really such a far-fetched possibility, I do not think that the petro-powers, together with fossil fuel interests in the industrial countries themselves, would be doing so much to prevent it. Their support for both Trump and Brexit – any Brexit – is a central part of that effort to prevent the US and EU from taking decisive action on climate change.

What this should say to you if you are looking forward to any sort of Brexit, whether it be the ice bath of No Deal or the warm shower of Norway++, is that Putin will thank you for it, and that your great grandchildren, if they are among humanity’s survivors, will curse you.

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COP 21: Saving the rainforests and ice sheets

This post was contributed by Dr Becky Briant, senior lecturer in Physical Geography at Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS)

Paris_skyline_from_the_observation_deck_of_the_Montparnasse_tower,_July_2015 - By Joe deSousa (Paris skyline) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsEach December for the past six years I have sat in a lecture room on a Tuesday evening in December and had the same conversation with a new group of students on my Climate Change module – what will be the outcome from the latest round of climate negotiations?

In 2009, I had only just launched the Birkbeck MSc in Climate Change Management. The Copenhagen COP was all over the news and hopes were high. One of my students worked in government and was actually there – sending back a daily briefing and entertaining us all with stories of Ed Miliband being woken up to respond to the hasty US-China deal that was brought together in the last few hours. But in the end it felt like failure. And the next few years were very quiet. It was hard to find useful resources online for the students to read and it seemed like no one expected the annual negotiations to yield much that was new.

Yet slowly things have been changing. Now, at COP 21 in Paris, it feels again like a useful deal might be struck. We have greenhouse gas emissions pledges on the table from most of the countries in the world and it seems like we have a chance of a useful reporting and review framework to surround them. It’s not yet enough, but it’s close enough and important enough that I took my family on the annual climate march for the first time. They were too small in 2009 for Copenhagen and perhaps I was too complacent about the hopes for a deal.

What we need to do

Dr Becky Briant on a climate march

Dr Becky Briant on a climate march

We need a deal to work this time though. We need to move on from the details of frameworks to actually acting to reduce emissions, as so many of our Birkbeck alumni already are across government, business and the third sector. We need to start holding countries accountable to their pledges, and urging joined up thinking in Governments as yesterday’s analysis of how many future coal fired power stations are planned in various economies shows.

The pledges we have now are a good start, but they are only that. Research by the Climate Interactive team at MIT shows that in themselves they will only limit global average surface warming to 3.5 degrees Celsius above the 1850 pre-industrial baseline. This is well above the 2 degrees that the world agreed at Copenhagen would constitute ‘dangerous’ climate change.

It starts to run the risk of crossing thresholds in the climate system such as complete Amazon forest dieback due to extreme drying which would severely affect the amount of carbon dioxide the land system can store for us. Or melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, causing sea levels to rise by some 7m. Once these tipping points are crossed, the system would be changed forever – at least longer than any human lifetime – and the new system would act to reinforce the changes seen. For example, losing the ice sheets would lower the reflectiveness of the earth’s surface, causing it to absorb more energy and so heat the world further.

The current pledges on the table only run until 2030 so there is plenty of scope for more ambitious pledges to reduce projected warming further, detailed very helpfully by the Climate Interactive team here:

The action required to have a strong chance of actually staying below 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature is challenging and I don’t think we can scale up the technologies required in time. But I am hoping that in another six years’ time my students and I will be having a very different conversation. And that my children will get to raise their children in a world that still has an Amazon rainforest and ice sheets at the poles because we acted now to stabilise temperature rise to at least near the 2 degree limit.

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The UN in Paris: Follow the Carbon-Free Money

This post was contributed by Jo Abbess, associate research fellow at Birkbeck, and graduate of the college’s MSc Climate Change. Her book, Renewable Gas: The Transition to Low Carbon Energy Fuels, was published this autumn by Palgrave Macmillan

By Joe deSousa (Paris skyline) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The great caravan that is the United Nations has assembled some exceedingly important officials from almost every nation on Earth in Paris, France, for the annual jamboree of climate change negotiations. Some very exciting things have already been announced:

  • 183 of 195 countries have pledged voluntary and unenforceable action on climate change
  • Bill Gates has promised us that new Technology, brought about by the might of Innovation, in his new “Breakthrough Energy Coalition”, will be investable and bankable clean energy;
  • Obama’s “Mission Innovation” will see 20 countries pledge to double their Research and Development funding;
  • and all but nine of the climate change activists that were trying to stage a peaceful public demonstration in Paris have been released from highly secure custody.

Like the police and army in Paris, we are on high alert. Maybe there will be genuine progress. Maybe there will be a treaty that licks global warming and locks the risk of dangerous climate change out. Maybe I’m being too cynical, but I very much doubt that the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will really get to grips with the business of curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

A delaying tactic?

For one thing, even though Technology and Innovation are the twin gods of all business schools, we don’t need to wait for any more Research and Development (R&D) – we already have all the types of clean energy we need. It’s right that clean energy is essential for tackling global warming, but some could argue quite reasonably that waiting for the results of another decade of R&D is just a delaying tactic. Who, we could ponder, would be interested in delaying the deployment of renewable energy? Have Obama and Gates and the United Nations itself been hoodwinked by the baseless promise of, say, new designs for nuclear power in two decades’ time, instead of onshore wind and solar farms that we can build today?

The UNFCCC has a history of being diverted from the main solutions to global warming: namely, the extensive application of energy efficiency principles in all business, commerce and manufacture; the application of demand-side reduction measures for all energy consumers; and the massive, geographically dispersed installation of renewable electricity generation stations. To roll out new clean energy technologies will take some fossil fuel energy to start with – so this needs to be compensated for by the application of stringent energy consumption controls.

We need a transition plan

Does anybody talk about this seriously? To wait any longer to transition from fossil fuel consumption to renewable energy consumption puts the entire habitable surface of the Earth at risk from dangerous climate change – so why should we accept delays for new research programmes to be completed? It’s true that any action on deforestation will address up to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, but that still leaves 80% of all humanity’s energy coming from fossil fuels that we must stop using or risk our place on Earth. We don’t need more R&D, or cross our fingers for more Innovation.

What we need is a transition plan – a strategy to transition from the use of fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy. Don’t sell me shiny, new energy technologies that don’t yet exist. Replace my power supply with green wind or solar power. But the wind doesn’t always blow, people complain, and the sun sets in the evening, people explain. So is renewable energy unreliable? No, renewable power is already offsetting massive chunks of expenditure on fossil fuels. But how do we bridge the gap and keep the lights on on calm, dark nights? Well, a transition plan would be simple. Keep replacing fossil fuel-fired power generation with renewable electricity generation, and keep replacing fossil fuel-fired power generation backup with low carbon gas backup.

Start with Natural Gas – while we still have it – and transition to Renewable Gas. This would take the cooperation of the large players in the oil, gas, coal, nuclear and engineering industries. What have they had to say about climate change so far? Shell, for example, has kept selling the idea of Carbon Capture and Storage to glue onto the back of fossil fuel-fired power plants. The efficiency of such a strategy is so low, not even the UK Government is ready to throw money at it any more. Yet Shell has gasification plant, which in theory could use biomass as input feedstock to manufacture low carbon gas. So why don’t they do it? And why don’t they publish their strategy to do this?

If Shell, BP and ExxonMobil won’t go public on a transition to Renewable Gas, then maybe it should fall to companies like Siemens Energy, Alstom and General Electric to make low carbon gas to compete with Natural Gas – which has a projected shelf life of between 20 to 35 years – after which depletion of the gas resources, coupled with concerns over carbon dioxide emissions will bar its continued use.

We don’t have time to wait

COP 21 logoI think that if Britain is to improve investment in clean energy, the Government needs to:

  • consent all onshore and offshore wind farms and solar farms to permit accelerating investment;
  • develop a Renewable Gas Obligation (with no subsidy attached) to mandate that all gas suppliers and gas-fired power plants use a certain proportion of low carbon gas;
  • allow for re-nationalisation of gas-fired power plants and gas storage facilities;
  • and bring back a state-funded comprehensive building insulation scheme – including making sure all new buildings are zero carbon.

We don’t have time to wait for big, bold Bill to bumble his way around energy futures. Outside the UN boxing ring, investment in renewable energy technologies has seen some impressive advances, and this flow of actual capital, more than the UN climate talks, gives me cause for hope. If COP21 does not produce a genuine, immediate stimulus to clean energy investment, then the process for me will have been a meaningless waste of time, personal energy and aeroplane emissions.

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Thoughts on the recent UN climate meeting in Poland

This post was contributed by Marit Marsh Stromberg,  a PhD student from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. Her scholarship is funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

One might have hoped for strong words and swift implementation from world leaders following the latest round of international climate change talks. The evidence and reality point towards the need for action. Firstly, the high likelihood that temperature rise has been caused by humans was emphasised in the Fifth Assessment Report on climate change, which was released recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Secondly, typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this month, has killed more than 5,000 people. Despite these facts, there was no new strongly-phrased climate agreement at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference from 11-22 November.

As usual, things move slowly and are more complex than that.

The gathering of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Polish capital, also known as Conference of the Parties (COP) 19, was part of a series of conferences to create a new Kyoto protocol ready to be signed in Paris in 2015. This time the hope is to get every country on board as the last treaty didn’t include major players like the US and China.

The host of the conference, Poland, has been criticised by environmental groups for hosting, at the same time, the Coal and Climate Summit (18-19 November) with the World Coal Association. While this choice to host climate change talks and a coal industry meeting simultaneously could be seen as hypocritical, I say it was a good choice. If it was not held in Poland, that coal conference would have taken place in some other country. The coincidence of the apparently mutually exclusive conferences taking place at the same time sheds lights on the current status of things: while governments all over the world may invest in renewable energies and energy efficiency measures, at the same time they allow business-as-usual in the fossil fuel sector; while the Arctic is melting, new fossil fuel extraction opportunities are revealed and explored. I am sure it is not only Poland that could be accused of hypocrisy and caught red-handed.

Now, how about the outcome of the UN climate conference? It has been reported as limited, but some small steps are still considered to have been made. As one-fifth of the CO2 emissions are related to deforestation the creation of a fund helping developing countries to keep their forests is considered as one of the more substantial outcomes. Another step forward have been the decisions taken regarding the compensation of loss and damage in relation to climate change for developing countries.

As regards the important question of assigning specific CO2 emission reduction targets, it was decided that countries should be able to present their proposed contributions (the exact word was a result of some longer negotiations and chosen instead of commitments) in early 2015 to allow time for the combined efforts to be evaluated before the final meeting later the same year.

The phrasing can apparently now be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, from the perspective of some developed nations (e.g. the US) it is clear that all countries need to make some actual reduction commitments, resting on the the argument that it is necessary that we target those countries that will be emitting the most in the future. Secondly, from the perspective of some developing nations (e.g. China, India) it is clear that developed countries need to take more action since they have the historical responsibility for the current state of affairs. I appreciate both arguments: the current emission trends need to be addressed, but we can’t forget the socioeconomic divisions that exists between (and within) countries and how history brought us here in the first place.

While the world leaders and the UN now have the delicate task of trying to reach a far-reaching and shared platform by the end of 2015, I will continue my own journey in a field related to climate change. This autumn I have started a PhD in Geography at Birkbeck. I will be looking into the characteristics of spatial and temporal variability of intermittent renewable energies, such as wind and solar energy, in the UK and how these characteristics can be used for finding a suitable renewable energy mix for a future reliable and greener electric power system. My studies are funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

I will update you on my progress via a termly blog on these pages. I can’t wait to contribute to research to help reduce CO2  emissions. After all, time is running out.

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UN World Environment Day

This post was contributed by Dr Becky Briant, from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies.

A journey of discovery

When I set up the MSc in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck in 2009, I thought I knew about climate change, having studied it since I was an undergraduate student in Cambridge. What I wasn’t prepared for was how little I actually did know. I didn’t know how much change had already happened (particularly in the Arctic and high mountain regions), and I didn’t realise just how little time we have left to make the sort of changes in our carbon emissions that our societies will be able to adjust to relatively easily. So, it was fascinating to watch a similar journey of discovery played out in the Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square last Thursday.

Thin Ice

The Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS) organised a screening of the new film Thin Ice for UN World Environment Day. This film follows the geologist and amateur filmmaker Simon Lamb on a voyage of discovery to find out how reliable the science around human-induced climate change is. As a geologist, you might think that he too ‘knew’ about climate change, yet the film showed that there was so much more to know. Footage followed scientists in their ‘daily lives’, collecting data and analysing it, including shadowing scientists at the New Zealand Scott Antarctic Base. It looked at daily climate measurements and how atmospheric chemistry (including carbon dioxide) is measured at the present day. He also talked to physicists who explained the greenhouse effect and modellers about how robust their models are. What I found most fascinating however, was his interview with Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. The interview was recorded before the events of ‘Climategate’ and to me clearly showed what the independent review later stated, that the CRU undertakes robust research on instrumental temperature records, and that the trend shows the temperatures are clearly increasing, as shown below. This trend is clearly seen also in many other instrumental temperature datasets.

Graph shows globally averaged Earth surface temperature (combined land and sea) based on instrumental datasets and produced by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre and the CRU in Norwich for 1850-2006. Source: Houghton (2009) Figure 4.1a based on FAQ3.1, Figure 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report from Working Group 1 (2007).

So, what should we do?

Following the film showing, there was a spirited discussion between ‘Thin Ice’ filmmaker David Sington, Antarctic scientist Colin Summerhayes and me (Dr Becky Briant) about how this problem can be tackled. The science is clear, despite vocal sceptics working hard to hijack the debate, but the politics are much more complex. This seems to be particularly since the pace of change is slow enough, at least in temperate regions, that urgent action seems like it can be put off. Debate was particularly lively around Colin’s assertion that scientists might come across as too alarmist to try and counter the sceptics and harm our own case. This was not a popular position and I was particularly struck by a student on one of the GEDS undergraduate programmes who is from Peru where she stated that mountain glaciers are melting, water supplies are threatened and no-one doubts the reality of human-induced climate change. Overall, much food for thought, and continued discussion over drinks outside the cinema.

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