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Make climate central to political discussion

Published: 
Monday, July 27, 2015

An energy revolution will sweep over the planet during the next few decades. The world’s number one crude oil exporter says that fossil fuels are on the way out. T&T needs to take note. Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali al-Naimi told a business and climate conference in Paris: “In Saudi Arabia, we recognise that eventually, we are not going to need fossil fuels. I don’t know when, in 2040, 2050 or thereafter.” 

Al-Naimi says that Saudi Arabia plans to become a “global power in solar and wind energy.” Instead of fossil fuels the desert kingdom will export electricity. This is an earth-shattering statement by a man whose words make energy markets move. His comments are non-binding but they prophesy nothing less than the end of the age of fossil fuels. 

Al-Naimi is just catching up to speed with what scientists have been saying for years. To prevent cataclysmic climate change we must leave fossil fuels in the ground. Fossil fuel executives derided this fact as nonsensical but science shows that continued extraction of fossil fuels poses an existential risk to humanity. 

Around the world public sentiment towards energy has changed. Climate change is a priority issue for voters in most advanced countries. Politicians who do not bow to the winds of climate policy, will be blown away by the electorate. G7 politicians, whether out of conviction or because they know what side of the bread their butter is on, have met with public resistance to carbon-based fuels and agreed to phase out fossil fuel by the end of the century. 

This is of course a suitably distant date and there are no binding agreements. The fact is, however, that the genie is out of the bottle. The need to move away from dirty fuel is an idea borne from necessity and when we need to do something, we find a way to do it.

In T&T the climate change discussion can be best described as climate apathy. As a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) we are more at risk from climate change and we are also the second highest per capita producer of greenhouse gases. Our total dependence on the fossil fuel industry makes us keep the door to the closet, in which the climate monster hides, firmly shut. If we don’t talk about it we won’t have to acknowledge it. The moment we acknowledge it, we will be forced to undertake an economic and societal change that scares us. 

Somebody told me a while ago that if we take away oil and gas from T&T, “You would not be able to walk down the road with your watch on your wrist. You will get mugged.” What will happen if we continue our dependence though? That is what is more interesting. Oil and gas are still the only real export earners, even after more than 160 years of opportunity to diversify the economy. 

Voter preference in the world’s advanced countries is dictating future geopolitics, investment and technology towards renewable energy. Where does that leave T&T? Certainly there will always be a market for hydrocarbons. This will no longer be for fuel but for the building blocks of our civilisation like chemicals and pharmaceuticals. This means that about 10-15 per cent of present day production will be maintained for non-fuel purposes. Prices will come crashing down and it unlikely that T&T will be maintain economic growth. 

Even if there are countries that go against the grain and insist on using fossil fuels for energy, will they be allowed to do so? With scientists warning that anthropogenic climate change threatens civilisation, as we know it, continued fossil fuel use by countries may well become regarded as a national security threat.

The G7 countries are historically the same countries that have fought resource wars for fossil fuels. They did this because they saw this as a way towards economic survival. How about simple survival? Will they now fight climate wars or embargo fossil fuel producers and consumers? Historically the price of fossil fuels has risen and the price of renewable energy has fallen. Today solar energy has reached price parity with fossil fuel produced electricity from the grid. 

Whichever way you look at it, environmentally, politically or economically, fossil fuels will be something from the past. It will be likened to the use of oil from oilbirds or whales to light lamps. Now these scenarios are a few decades away but they are plain to see for any visionary. Reforming and diversifying a single-commodity economy will take decades. 

Look at how long it is taking the former communist states in Eastern Europe to catch up to their Western European counterparts—that revolution started more than 25 years ago. A drawback of a five-year electoral cycle is that we are caught in a five-year decision-making process. We must think in cycles of decades, not years. We need to make climate central to public awareness in T&T so that it can rise above party politics and become central to political discussion and policymaking. 

T&T has the financial and human resources to diversify towards a clean, green and prosperous economy. The world is changing and we must be part of that revolution if we are to set our own destiny and contribute to a healthy planet.

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