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Barrel of oil no more…

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By Praveen Gupta

· 7 min read

The battle between Russia and Ukraine is also about renewable versus non-renewable sources of energy. Perhaps dependence on Russian gas was as much undermining NATO’s sovereignty as was Ukraine’s perceived posturing driving Russia’s belligerence. However, as the unfortunate drama escalates, fossil fuel pricing keeps scaling new highs. Some optimists believe this is a tipping point for renewables.

In this melee what tends to be missed out is that Energy security is not just about fuelling power generation, manufacturing, or mobility. On the eve of International Women’s Day, we need to remember that it is also about putting cooked food on the table. For millions of women and girls particularly in the developing countries - it is a day-to-day war for firewood which gets grimmer with growing deforestation. Securing energy would secure the future of these women and girls.

‘With the price of oil driving the world into fuel poverty, hardworking families unable to afford heating and transport, millions of people dying each year from air pollution and a climate crisis which will cause a catastrophic breakdown of global food systems by 2030, it is staggering that we continue to believe that winding down the carbon economy over the next few decades will be “enough”, says Stephen Fern, Chairman Ark2030.


Celebrated author and climate champion Amitav Ghosh brings out an interesting facet: ‘The modern era, it is often asserted, has freed humanity from the Earth, and propelled it into a new age of progress in which human-made goods take precedence over natural products. The trouble is that none of that is true’, he says.

‘We are today even more dependent on botanical matter than we were three hundred years (or five hundred, or even five millennia) ago, and not just for our food. Most contemporary humans are completely dependent on energy that comes from long-buried carbon - and what are coal, oil, and natural gas except fossilized forms of botanical matter?’ (“Excerpt: The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh - Hindustan Times”)

‘As for the circulation of goods, in that too fossil fuels vastly outweigh any category of human-made goods’. (“The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Ghosh”) In the words of two energy economists, quotes Ghosh in his recent book The Nutmeg’s Curse: “Energy is the most important commodity in the world today. "And by almost any metric, the energy industry is impossibly large." (“The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by ...”) Yearly energy sales at over 10 trillion dollars dwarf expenditures on any other single commodity; trade and transport of energy is immense with over 3 trillion dollars in international transactions driving product deliveries through 2 million kilometers of pipelines and 500 million deadweight tons of merchant shipping; 8 of the 10 largest global corporations are energy companies; and a third of the global shipping fleet is occupied shipping oil. "Given these figures it may not be surprising that world energy consumption takes the energy equivalent of over 2800 barrels of oil per second to quench.” (“The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Ghosh”) With such entrenched vested interests, ridding the global economy of carbon is a humongous task.

Keep it in the ground

Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel is still raising trillions of dollars of funding, despite finance industry pledges to back net zero carbon targets by the middle of the century. (“Coal Is Still Raising Trillions of Dollars Despite Green ...”) Such is our addiction that Commercial banks have channeled more than $1.5 trillion across the coal supply chain since the start of 2019, according to a report from German researcher Urgewald and its partners. "The findings come just over three months after dozens of banks joined Mark Carney’s global alliance to achieve net-zero emissions from finance." (“Coal Is Still Raising Trillions of Dollars Despite Green Shift”) 

Most agree it’s necessary to fight rising temperatures, yet few major global banks are willing to shun profitable fossil-fuel clients. The biggest coal lenders included Mizuho Financial Group Inc., Barclays Plc, Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., the study showed. Chinese banks dominated the underwriting of capital raised by the coal industry. “This is a clear sign that companies aren’t transitioning”, says Heffa Schuecking, founder of Urgewald. (“Coal Is Still Raising Trillions of Dollars Despite Green Shift”)

Institutional investors have combined holdings of more than $1.2 trillion in the coal industry. BlackRock Inc. and Vanguard Group Inc. are the two largest, with share and bond holdings of over $100 billion each, according to the report. Both firms are members of the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative. (“Coal Is Still Raising Trillions of Dollars Despite Green Shift”)

There’s growing concern that coal plants could be left as stranded assets during the green transition, with countries favouring renewable power sources. Yet the report’s findings show that banks and asset managers still see opportunities to make a return. (“Coal Is Still Raising Trillions of Dollars Despite Green Shift”) “Vast amounts of cash are provided to an industry that is our climate’s worst enemy,” says Ganswindt. (“Who Is Still Financing the Global Coal Industry...”)

Leveraging Biodiversity and Ecological Services 

As the extractive industry merrily destroys whatever remains of the green cover, how do we sensitise the billions about the biodiversity and ecological services that we take for granted? Unless we bring out the linkages, much of our society remains distanced from the ‘inanimate’ earth. It is critical to infuse the throb of life and let that be felt. We need to be mindful that every action against the nature too has an equal and opposite reaction. This is precisely what mother nature pushing back father greed is about.

Renowned ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin has a time-tested prescription from his several decades of work inside the Amazon forests. ‘It is all too easy to say that the only news that is coming out of the environment in general - and the rainforest in particular - is bad. That people in general and large conservation organizations are now realizing the central role local societies must be empowered to assume is highly encouraging. (“Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin: Indigenous knowledge serves as ...”) That the Indigenous peoples themselves are pointing out that they are the best stewards of their ancestral ecosystems is likewise long overdue and to be celebrated’.

‘Of course, there is a win-win scenario here in which shamanism remains an honored profession, Indigenous people are compensated fairly for their healing knowledge and practices, the rainforest is better protected, and cherished, and sick people are cured. Yet achieving these goals have proven more difficult than many had anticipated’, I quote Plotkin from one of his interviews with Mongabay.

‘In my experience, partnering effectively with tribal colleagues and communities does not happen on a western timeline and is certainly not expedited by simply throwing lots of money at the process. For example, for almost four decades, I have been working with the great shaman Amasina - who has been interviewed by Mongabay - and he is still showing me new treatments. Trying to learn information like this in a hurry would have failed’. (“Indigenous knowledge serves as a ‘connective tissue ...”) Indigenous knowledge serves as a ‘‘connective tissue’’ between nature and human well-being’.

In conclusion

The mad scramble for fossil fuels to keep building the edifice on the foundations laid by the industrial revolution has outlived its utility. The genie must go back from where it came. Extinction is too heavy a price to pay, and Mars is a mirage. This is the only home we have. Wars, conflicts, coups, autocrats, and now the climate crisis which will only continue to fuel frequent and far more serious manifestations of all these. Why not opt for nature’s wondrous and benign gifts? Let us leave coal, oil, and gas below the ground. The abundant sun and wind can keep us all going without having to worry about the wellbeing of our womenfolk. Biodiversity will keep us healthy and sane. For the sake of our future generations can we say: Power flows from the barrel of oil no more! Can Russia versus Ukraine settle this score?

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of his work.

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