Africa’s Climate Hope: Uncovering the Significance of Fossil Fuels

Cape Town — When you hear the word “fossil” what generally comes to mind? Old bones, right? The bones of dinosaurs and other animals, and maybe you’d even call to mind the ancient remains of our human ancestors. The point is that it’s really old. So are fossil fuels.

But why is this source of energy powering global expansion and extraction in the industrial model of development for well over the past century so contentious?

And why is much of the talk around the climate crisis centred around this topic?

To understand that, we’ll need to go back to the beginning.

Fossil fuels are sources of energy such as petroleum, gas, and coal produced deep within the earth’s crust from plants and animals that died millions of years ago. The heat and pressure in the earth’s crust causes these remains to break down into what we call fossil fuels. Here’s a clear and simple explanation of how this happens.

These sources of energy are pulled from within the earth’s crust using heavy machinery that require a great deal of energy (also made from fossil fuels), and causes incalculable damage to the water, land, plants and animals where extractive operations take place. The fuels are then transported, via pipelines and tankers, to refineries, and again shipped, trucked or flown to be sold all over the world.

We cannot speak about damage to the earth without acknowledging the impact oil and gas industry has on indigenous peoples displaced from their land while dealing with incredible brutality. Globally, indigenous peoples are still fighting to be recognised as the custodians of their ancestral lands. This in the face of increased oil and gas exploration as the global supply decreases, and the demand for energy grows exponentially for countries growing along an industrial development path.

The 1,443km East African Crude Oil Pipeline being constructed from Uganda to Tanzania led to the displacement of more than 100,000 people, with inadequate or delayed compensation, livelihoods lost and the alleged brutalisation of those who speak out against the development. These abuses were well documented by and Human Rights Watch. The heated crude oil pipeline will run near Africa’s largest freshwater reserve – Lake Victoria – posing a significant threat to local sources of income and biodiversity in the region.

A report by Human Rights Watch earlier this year showed the devastating impact of the Total Energies pipeline.

“EACOP has been a disaster for the tens of thousands who have lost the land that provided food for their families and an income to send their children to school, and who received too little compensation from TotalEnergies,” said Felix Horne, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “EACOP is also a disaster for the planet and the project should not be completed.”

So besides the huge financial, environmental and human cost of extracting these energy sources, what happens when they are used?

When fossil fuels are burnt in the internal combustion engines of our cars, or used to generate electricity, they release carbon dioxide and a host of other pollutants into the air we breathe. Carbon dioxide plays a key role in maintaining the earth’s temperature, but too much of it in the earth’s atmosphere provides an increased heating effect, coining the term greenhouse gas. Other greenhouse gases are methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapour.

1.5 degrees for a liveable future

Why is this a bad thing?

“As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat. This leads to global warming and climate change. The world is now warming faster than at any point in recorded history. Warmer temperatures over time are changing weather patterns and disrupting the usual balance of nature. This poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of life on Earth”, according to the United Nations.

The conditions that are needed for many species of plants, animals, and even for humans to live and thrive on earth are very specific. The higher average temperatures over time means that many of the basic needs of species can no longer be met. For example, the higher frequency and intensity of droughts and floods make it difficult for people to grow food or for natural vegetation to recover.

Scientists said that if we want to ensure a liveable future and avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis we need to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that we limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

“More than a century of burning fossil fuels as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use has led to global warming of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. This has resulted in more frequent and more intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world,” according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report.

The air we breathe

The health implications of the pollutants released by burning fossil fuels are vast. In South Africa, electricity is largely produced by using coal. In fact, South Africa tops the list of countries most dependent on coal for energy. The communities surrounding coal mines and coal-fired power plants pay a disproportionate price for the continued use of this source of energy.

Earlier this year the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos A. Orellana, made an official visit to South Africa. During the visit he looked at the use of pesticides and air quality. Orellana said that despite South Africa’s Constitution being a global forerunner of the right to a healthy environment, in practice poor monitoring and implementation of safeguards to protect the environment and human health means that the majority of South Africans are exposed to health risks.

Orellana had harsh words for the “crude legacy” of apartheid in South Africa, saying that “pre-1994 environmental racism” was an “abhorrent practice” that put “landfills and polluting industries along racial lines and in low-income and migrant communities”.

“The legacy of pervasive air and water pollution to this day is disproportionately impacting marginalized and poor communities. The challenges to overcoming the legacy of environmental racism are enormous, and they are compounded by structural inequality, widespread poverty, unemployment, corruption, a severe energy crisis and new environmental threats such as the climate emergency,” Orellalana wrote in a report at the end of the visit.

In 2018 satellite data – commissioned by Greenpeace over a three-month period – looked at global pollution hotspots on six continents, results showed the coal industry and transport sector were the major sources of air pollution. South Africa’s coal-fired power plants topped the list.

“This confirms that South Africa has the most polluting cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world, which is both disturbing and very scary,” said Melita Steele, Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager for Greenpeace Africa said at the time.

COP out?

The COP28 climate talks just drew to a close in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UN Climate Change describes these gatherings as “the foremost global forums for multilateral discussion of climate change matters”.

The decision to hold it in UAE, with an economy largely based on the extraction and sale of fossil fuels, was not welcomed by many. The UAE, just like Egypt where COP27 was held in 2022, has faced widespread criticism for the lack of space for activists and civil society to make themselves heard. Expectations for the conference were low and many opted not to attend as the talks were being led by the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. The number of fossil fuel executives at the conference numbered around 2,456 compared to 636 in Egypt.

A new record.

Shortly before the conference started, reports emerged of a leaked document that showed Al Jaber was planning to conclude new oil and gas deal with a number of countries that would be attending the climate talks.

According to an Amnesty International statement: “ADNOC is among the ten largest producers of oil and gas in the world. According to documents obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting, Sultan Al Jaber was briefed to advance the interest of ADNOC and Masdar, another state-owned energy company focused on renewables and hydrogen. It was previously reported that ADNOC staff were seconded to the COP28 organising team in the UAE, and COP28 communications were reportedly routed through ADNOC computer servers.”

The talks passed the December 12 deadline, amid a concerted effort by many governments of the worst affected countries to push for the phasing out of fossil fuels. All parties need to agree on the final outcome.

While it is ‘historic’ that mention of a transition away from fossil fuels made it into the final text the language is far from the radical and immediate action that is needed to ensure a liveable future. No new fossil fuel development, that’s what the scientific community and the UN Chief Antonio Guetteres have called for. And while moving away from fossil fuels is exceedingly complex, it is possible with co-ordinated committed, global action bearing in mind the burden of responsibility lies largely with developed countries who are responsible for most of the historic emissions.

At the closing plenary on 13 December, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said: “COP28 also needed to signal a hard stop to humanity’s core climate problem – fossil fuels and their planet-burning pollution. Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end”.

Climate scientist Dr Friederike Otto felt differently. She told The Guardian: “The lukewarm agreement reached at COP28 will cost every country, no matter how rich, no matter how poor. Everyone loses. It’s hailed as a compromise, but we need to be very clear what has been compromised. The short-term financial interests of a few have again won over the health, lives and livelihoods of most people living on this planet.”

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