Climate sheikhs. Activists as window dressing

Activists seem to think that one fine day, the Earth will produce electricity thanks to wind turbines and solar panels. However, they do not take into account that about 80% of energy is currently obtained from other sources.

As usual at the climate summit, there was a battle over words. This time it was about what word to use for the future of fossil fuels. Radical climate activists were tearing their clothes just one day before the end of the discussions because the draft final document presented by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, who was chairing the discussions, did not mention “moving away” from fossil fuels.

The next day, however, it turned out that the long-awaited mention had appeared in the document, and the activists could trumpet their success. Of course, it was not complete, because those who stick to paintings and protesting children would probably prefer the immediate closure of all power plants, but still, it was some success.

This word was very much needed by everyone. After all, no one in their right mind will study the entire final document, and even if they do, they will not understand without deeper studies what lies behind each formulation. Words like “success” or “breakthrough” help maintain the belief that things are going in the right direction, whatever that may mean.

Incidentally, we could see how freshness and youth directed against the old world of industry and money have perfectly reconciled with that world and live with it in a kind of symbiosis. At one point, twelve-year-old Licypriya Kangujam from India took the main stage, presenting a banner calling for an end to fossil fuels and loudly chanting climate slogans, which was later delicately referred to by the global media as a “brief appearance”.

After a moment, she was gently led away by tall security guards and – as she excitedly wrote on social media – detained for a whole half hour. The sight of her was greeted with applause, and once she had disappeared backstage, the presiding Sultan Al Jaber smiled broadly and asked for another round of applause to honour her “enthusiasm”.

Of course, one would be mistaken to think that after Greta Thunberg became too familiar, being nearly 21 years old, younger reserves were tapped, because Miss Licypriya, one might say, is a veteran of protests. Four years ago, at the age of eight, she protested at the climate summit in Spain, where she later chatted with the UN Secretary-General.

Both these images: Enrique Gutierrez talking to her then and the UAE Sultan clapping now, nicely show the peculiar symbiosis of the world of money and politics with the world of activists, who the younger they are, the better, because they are easier to lead. It’s hard to expect that Miss Licypriya came to the discussions all by herself, and the idea that the Sultan’s security guards wouldn’t notice someone jumping on stage next to their ruler can be dismissed as a fairy tale. It’s easier to imagine that the Sultan sent his private jet for her, and the security guards first escorted the activist to the hall, then helped her onto the stage, so she wouldn’t accidentally trip.

All this was done to show the world the challenges faced by the attendees and how much they listen to the voices of those they are to serve, namely future generations, and who better symbolises future generations than a twelve-year-old from the world’s most populous country? Miss Licypriya played her role perfectly.

Sultan Al Jaber, who besides ruling the country, also heads the gigantic oil company ADNOC, capable of extracting four million barrels of oil per day, was initially criticised by activists for who he is. Entrusting him with chairing the climate summit was compared to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse.

Indeed, it’s hard to assume that one of the Big Oil bosses would just decide to liquidate his business and the business of his colleagues in the region. During the discussions, the content of a letter sent by OPEC to its thirteen members was revealed, in which it was urged to ensure that all official documents refer to reducing CO2 emissions, not reducing the extraction of fossil fuels.

As a result, a somewhat Aesopian record was obtained, which can be interpreted in various ways and contains many ambiguities, but includes the phrase awaited by activists about moving away from fossil fuels, while also giving the sheikhs comfortable wiggle room.

It reads as follows: “Moving away from the use of fossil fuels in energy systems in a fair, honest, and proportionate manner, accelerating actions in the current critically important decade so that by 2050 we achieve zero emissions in a way consistent with scientific criteria.”
U.S. President’s Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during COP28 in Dubai. Photo: EPA/ALI HAIDER Source: PAP/EPA.
Oil and gas producers were keen on committing to reducing emissions rather than extraction for obvious reasons. If by 2050 the production of oil and natural gas were to be reduced to zero, they would have to shut down their businesses. Since many nations in the Middle East, among others, live off these industries, there would surely be more protesters than residents of the Marshall Islands, who are alarming the world that their islands will soon be submerged under rising sea levels due to climate changes. The world can somehow endure the drama of the Marshallese and accept these tens of thousands of people in other countries. If suddenly it turned out that the majority of Arab societies had nothing to live on, the consequences would be much worse.

Let’s add on a side note, but this would be a note of the kind that is larger than the whole, that the world would then have no means to produce electrical energy. Nota bene, even today, several hundred million people do not have access to a stable and safe source of electricity. That is why, among others, African countries were some of the strongest protesters against radical solutions. Activists seem to think that one fine day, the Earth will produce electricity thanks to wind turbines and solar panels, and perhaps hydroelectric power plants, and everyone will be happy. However, they do not take into account that about 80% of energy is currently obtained from other sources: most from burning coal, then gas, followed by nuclear and biomass combustion.

     Indeed, the share of renewable energy in the so-called energy mix is increasing, but it is not possible to reach 100% within the next three decades. Moreover, even if by some miracle this happened, a few days of windless and cloudy weather in any area would lead to a local disaster. This is compounded by the significantly increased demand for electricity to charge electric cars, which even in sun-drenched lands and those swept by constantly blowing breezes can cause serious trouble.

Take California as an example, where this year recommendations were issued to electric car owners to charge their vehicles only during certain hours. This was to avoid overlapping power demands for chargers and for intensively working air conditioning in the afternoons and evenings, as the power grid was unable to handle it. For now, these were just recommendations, but in the case of bigger problems, it can be imagined that the authorities would be forced to introduce restrictions.

So explaining to twelve-year-old Miss Licypriya, or her younger colleagues who will surely populate various climate conventions in the future, that stopping the extraction of fossil fuels is not possible, and it would probably be difficult for her to reconcile the fight for the planet with the awareness that her native India also needs electricity. However, as I mentioned earlier, she was rather a mandatory ornament of the gathering, while the decisions were negotiated by people able to count money and plan economic development. Moreover, seeing change as an opportunity to earn really big money.

Let’s return to what the sheikhs ruling Big Oil (and gas) have to propose in the fight to stop climate change and why they preferred to agree to limit emissions, not extraction. They partially succeeded because the aforementioned record concerns “energy systems,” not transport, so car owners can feel safer for now (unless, of course, they live on continents where the use of internal combustion engines is to be eliminated, like us).

Does this record mean that by 2050 gas power plants will have to be eliminated? That’s a good question, to which nobody can answer right now. Electric power production in such plants is much more ecologically efficient than in coal-fired plants, but the latter have long been doomed, though their construction is in full swing in countries like China and India, so their governments must know something about the real value of these ominous records. Moreover, here too, the Aesopian language makes their interpretation not unambiguous. In this case, the specific record reads: “Accelerating efforts to move away from coal energy production.”

However, that’s not the entire record, because the word “coal” is qualified by the adjective “unabated,” which may be understood as “unprocessed,” but in the climate jargon, it means coal burned in a way that does not limit CO2 emissions. So, it is very possible that the Chinese will continue their program of building coal power plants (with 37 GW of coal power plants to be built just in 2023), because it’s very likely they consider their coal as “abated.”

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What must happen for fossil fuel to become “abated” (it’s tempting to coin the term “climate kosher”...)? One way is to create installations parallel to power plants for capturing carbon dioxide. This is not just about capturing the gas emitted by the power plant itself, although that would be the most logical, but simply about capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and then storing it in underground reservoirs, where it will remain for thousands of years, or until the situation in the world changes radically.

Big Oil companies are starting to adopt this method, as their profits allow them to create such installations, which are not cheap. And thanks to this, they can walk around in the glory of climate defenders, because instead of reducing their emissions, they show the net result after subtracting the carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere. Sometimes they even over-manifest their satisfaction, causing embarrassment to activists and scientists who would prefer to simply move away from fossil fuels, or at least not to speak so loudly about it.

The statement of Vicki Hollub, the head of the oil giant Occidental Petroleum, became famous this year at an industry meeting when she said that after purchasing CO2 capture technology from the atmosphere, she is calm that her company will operate for at least 60, maybe 80 years.

The only problem – and the sheikhs and bankers probably won’t discuss this for a moment – is that this technology is very energy-intensive and also requires the use of large areas normally used for agricultural production. It involves growing plants that accumulate CO2 and then recovering the gas from these plants. Therefore, if it were to be applied on a large scale to achieve the desired effect of zero emissions by 2050, so much land would be needed for cultivation that more than 500 million hectares would be missing, an area twice the size of India’s farmland.

Of course, this would only happen in one of many scenarios that are being constructed for this occasion, maybe it would be less, but one thing is certain: these crops would directly compete with grain crops. They would compete for land, but also for water.

Going in the direction of developing this technology may mean that we will face an alternative: eat, or use electric devices. It is worth adding that in the equations that climate analysts create for the development of CO2 capture biotechnology, there is increasingly less room for meat. A report recently published by the British Chatham House diplomatically stated that humanity should switch to a “healthy diet,” and half of meat production should be replaced by its plant-based counterparts. Of course, one can assume that the sheikhs will somehow be able to satisfy their appetite for meat, unless they are vegetarians.

These are the consequences when the global movement to reverse climate change is taken over by people who deal with business and finance, and this is what it looks like now. Observers agreed this year that the composition of participants fundamentally changed. As Landon Derentz, head of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council and former Director of Energy at the U.S. National Security Agency, put it, the “fabric” of the gathered audience has changed. Activists increasingly play the role of window dressing – they can have their five minutes and shout, for which they will be rewarded with applause, but control over changes is taken over by businessmen and technocrats. This is obviously much better than if it were controlled by people like Greta Thunberg, or various “sticker-ers,” who would have given us a new stone age, but it is not a situation without risks.

Finally, a very optimistic piece of news. For the first time in nearly 30 years, a mention of nuclear energy was included in the final communique. Furthermore – a group of 22 countries, including 12 European Union states and Great Britain, made a commitment to triple nuclear energy production by 2050. It is increasingly recognized that without increasing the share of nuclear energy, it will not be possible to meet the demand for energy while reducing CO2 emissions.

For us, this is good news as it will help in discussions with Germany, which shut down its nuclear power plants for purely ideological reasons, and now wants others to do the same, because after all, Germany does the right things, and those who have not yet built nuclear power plants – like Poland – to give up this step. It will now be much more difficult for them to prove that nuclear energy is unecological and generally harmful. It is very likely that the sheikhs also want to earn money on nuclear energy. In this case, their profit is also our gain.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Twelve-year-old Licypriya Kangujam protesting during the climate summit in Dubai. Photo: EPA/MARTIN DIVISEK Source: PAP/EPA.
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