OPINION: Fossil fuels and sustainable development are incompatible

by Freddie Daley | @Fred_Daley | University of Sussex
Thursday, 2 June 2022 05:45 GMT

Activists from the climate group Extinction Rebellion demonstrate in front of the John Wilson district government building to demand an end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure in Washington, U.S., April 22, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Progress towards the SDGs will be extremely difficult in our warming world. The longer states wait to phase out fossil fuels, the more suffering will ensue

Freddie Daley is research associate at the University of Sussex and co-author of ‘Fuelling Failure: How coal, oil and gas sabotage all seventeen Sustainable Development Goals’

Political leaders gather for the United Nations’ Stockholm+50 this week, an environmental conference that hopes to accelerate the implementation of the UN ‘Decade of Action’ to deliver on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. But it's unclear whether they will discuss the elephant in the room: fossil fuels.

2030 must be a line in the sand for the health of our planet and its people.

Now less than eight years away, 2030 is the year in which climate scientists say global emissions need to be half what they are today if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It is also the year where governments are forecast to have produced 240% more coal, 57% more oil and 71% more gas than is consistent with holding global temperatures at 1.5ºC.

A new report launched at Stockholm+50 makes the case that the exploration, extraction, refining, transportation and combustion of fossil fuels are undermining both our climate and every single SDG.

Make no mistake, fossil fuels are the primary driver of the climate crisis, responsible for 86% of global CO2 emissions over the last decade. Fossil fuel infrastructures also have direct impacts that disrupt human and environmental systems, from poisoning waterways, to oil spills driving species to the brink of extinction.  

Achieving the SDGs by 2030 is a monumental task in its own right, but when you consider the long shadow that climate change is casting over all of humanity, and the continued expansion of fossil fuel production, it may become an impossible endeavour. 

The latest IPCC report stated that around 40% of humanity are “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change. Amongst this already large section of the global population, there are approximately one billion children - nearly half of all the children on Earth - who are deemed “extremely high risk” to the impacts of climate change. 

Terms like “highly vulnerable” and “extremely high risk” fail to illustrate the everyday experience of the crisis that is unfolding.

Last month temperatures in Pakistan and India topped 50°C, driving power outages, water insecurity and even flash floods from melting glaciers. The World Meteorological Organisation estimates that these heat waves were 30 times more likely due to climate change. For many people alive today, these are the coolest years of their lives.

Progress towards the SDGs will be extremely difficult in our warming world. But this is not to say that we should not try - and this must start with an acknowledgement that sustainable development and tackling climate change are inextricably linked. We cannot achieve one without the other, and failure in addressing one undermines the other. 

But to do this, we must confront the root cause of the climate crisis - fossil fuels. Last year the historically conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) called for no new investment into fossil fuels if we’re to meet our climate targets. More recent research, however, suggests that we need to go further and, instead, leave 40% of developed fossil fuel reserves safely in the ground. 

This poses challenges to all countries, rich or poor.

Infrastructures face becoming stranded, sending shockwaves through the global financial system. Forgone profits from oil, gas and coal reserves and depleted government revenues will need to be filled. Investment needs to pour into the deployment of renewables at a rate far greater than what we are currently seeing, with the wealthiest countries supporting the poorest.

This will require an international framework that complements the Paris Agreement to bring the era of fossil fuels to an end, which could take the form of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The longer states wait to phase out fossil fuels, the more suffering will ensue. Sky-high fossil fuel prices have provided bumper profits for oil and gas majors, while many are struggling to make ends meet. Fuel shortages and rising food prices have plunged Sri Lanka into a full blown crisis. In the UK, living standards are forecast to slide at a rate not seen since records began. 

The higher fossil fuel prices stay, the cheaper the energy transition becomes. We are already two years into what must be a crucial decade for mitigating climate change and achieving the SDGs. The only way we can do it is by phasing out fossil fuels for good.