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Why the Carbon Bubble Will Burst

By Jonathon Porritt

Whenever I see "sustainability" included in a long list of issues to be addressed by a company or a local authority, I find it difficult to avoid exploding with rage. Whatever else it is, it is not "an issue."

You can see this attitude reflected in the different shades of corporate sustainability we see today. For the vast majority of companies, sustainability is simply added on; only a minority are seriously intent on mainstreaming sustainability into everything they do. Sustainability as “the central organising principle of everything we do” (the rallying cry of the Sustainable Development Commission before this frighteningly retrogressive Coalition Government axed it in 2011), is as elusive a big idea as ever.

There has always been some tension about the hierarchy of big ideas in this space, going right back to the Brundtland Report (‘Our Common Future’) in 1987. Its authors argued passionately for strict equivalence between biophysical sustainability on the one hand (maintaining the life support systems on which all life depends) and social justice on the other. That was fine, but it all got much more divisive when they went on to extol the virtues of high levels of economic growth as the only way of securing social justice.

Then, the preconditionality debate broke loose: some argued that there is no hope of achieving social justice without first securing the environment, while others maintained that there’s no way of protecting natural resources without first eliminating social injustice. And protagonists on both sides felt – and still feel – very strongly about this!

Now, this debate has taken on a tragic new urgency, thanks to the growing threat of the carbon bubble at the heart of the global economy.

Back in April, an organization called Carbon Tracker, supported by the Grantham Research Institute in London, updated its analysis of how global investors are responding to accelerating climate change. It’s not a pretty picture. Every year, financial regulators allow the big oil, gas and coal companies to declare some of their existing reserves as new assets on their balance sheets. The share price of the companies is heavily influenced by the hypothetical value of those assets, with investors working on the expectation that they will be fully developed and have a long, and presumably profitable, production lifetime.

Unfortunately, as Carbon Tracker’s Unburnable Carbon report demonstrates, were those expectations to be met, with the assets realized and the dividends duly paid out, the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from that production would push us way beyond the politicians’ comforting 2°C threshold – the upper limit for an average temperature increase before the end of the century if we are to have any chance of preventing runaway climate change. Yet every year we pump up that carbon bubble, to the tune of a staggering $624 billion of new investments in 2012.

Bubbles always burst. Confronted with the increasingly traumatic consequences of a rapidly warming world (already a harsh physical reality for many), politicians will be forced into panic policy responses. They will seek to do in a very short time what we should have been doing over the last 25 years, including putting a higher price on every tonne of CO2. And when they do, all those oil, gas and coal assets will first become unviable and then completely stranded, destroying trillions of dollars of economic value in the process.

It’s already too late to avoid that particular Hobson’s choice: Either we burn the planet by crashing through the 2°C barrier and on to 4°C or even higher, or the bubble bursts, with very severe economic consequences. But we don’t have to go on making it worse – and we don’t have to further penalize the world’s poor in managing the outfall. As is now well understood, the principal alternatives to fossil fuels (renewables and energy efficiency) are even more important in developing and emerging countries as they are in the rich world.

If ever there was a preconditional imperative, this is surely it. Accelerating climate change, caused by the continuing emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, represents an existential threat to our species – by which I mean it threatens the stability and economic wellbeing of every society on Earth.

This is the “inconvenient truth” at the heart of the global economy today. It is recognized (although often set aside) by a minority of politicians. It remains totally unseen as far as the vast majority are concerned. But if we don’t move very rapidly indeed through programs of radical decarbonization in every sector of the economy, increased social justice will become a very distant dream. Indeed, the lives of billions of people will become too horrendous to contemplate.

So can it still be done? I believe it can – which is the main thrust of my new book, “The World We Made,” to be published in October. But debates about whether social justice or biophysical sustainability comes first are little more than a self-indulgent irrelevance. Some "issue!"

Jonathon Porritt is Founder-Director of Forum for the Future 

Photo: Forum for the Future

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