Earth Law Strengthens Move Towards Smarter Energy Choices

Figure 1 Solar panel farm. Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

Figure 1 Solar panel farm. Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

By Sara Bellan

Between 2005 and 2030, global energy needs are projected to expand by 55%. So the challenge is not only to meet current energy needs, but also those of a projected 10 billion people by 2050 and to do so with low-cost, zero-carbon energy to keep the global temperature increase from rising above 2˚C.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the share of total global energy demand met by fossil fuels is forecast to decline by 2040. Unfortunately, forecasts still have fossil fuels accounting for 74% of demand, compared to 81% in 2017. 

First, a quick primer on fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are nonrenewable energy sources formed between 360-300 million years ago. In roughly 53 years, all known oil sources are expected to be depleted.  We can expect 52 years for gas and 150 years for coal deposits.

Unearthing, processing, and moving underground oil, gas, and coal deposits destroys landscapes and ecosystems, affecting the animals who depend on those ecosystems as habitats or migration stops.

Coal, oil, and gas development threaten the health of waterways and aquifers. Coal mining operations contaminate streams, rivers and lakes with the dumping of unwanted rock and soil, and acid runoff.  Oil spills and leaks during extraction or transport pollute drinking water sources, killing entire freshwater or ocean ecosystems. Fracking and its toxic fluids have also been found to contaminate drinking water

Greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels, trap heat and make the planet warmer. Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 100 times faster than the increase when the last ice age ended, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA). Burning fossil fuels, combined with deforestation, have contributed to the significant rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the key greenhouse gases.

Methane is a key greenhouse gas with an impact 34 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, according to the latest IPCC Assessment Report. Methane is a key by-product of natural gas extraction and processing of natural gas as well as livestock plus landfills (which emit it as waste decomposes).

Fossil fuels still account for 80 percent of global energy consumption and 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Proven, scaleable solutions for moving away from fossil fuels

Examples of several different approaches show that moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy can be done.

  • Price fossil fuels to reflect actual costs

  • Improve energy efficiency with more investment

  • Decarbonize the power sector by phasing out coal

  • Expand access to electricity and clean cooking

Figure 2 Carbon tax icon. Tommaso.sansone91 [CC0]

Figure 2 Carbon tax icon. Tommaso.sansone91 [CC0]

Price fossil fuels to reflect actual costs

Carbon pricing taxes the polluters by having them pay for the costs not currently considered – like crop damage from extreme weather, health expenses due to heatwaves, and storm damage to properties. A price on carbon helps shift the burden for the damage back to those who are responsible for it, and to those who can reduce it. Instead of dictating who should reduce emissions where and how, a carbon price allows polluters to choose to discontinue their polluting activity, reduce emissions, or continue polluting and pay for it.

Carbon tax puts a fee on the production, distribution or use of fossil fuels based on how much carbon their combustion emits. The government sets a price per ton on carbon, then translates it into a tax on electricity, natural gas or oil. Because the tax makes using dirty fuels more­ expensive, it encourages utilities, businesses and individuals to reduce consumption and increase energy efficiency. Carbon tax also makes alternative energy more cost-competitive with cheaper, polluting fuels like coal, natural gas and oil. 

Evidence from the 70 national and subnational economies that have put a price on carbon shows it does not slow economic growth, but provides a clear and steady signal for business, industry and consumers to shift course. In 2017, carbon pricing programs raised $33 billion in government revenues globally. The New Climate Economy finds that fossil fuel subsidy reforms and carbon pricing could generate $2.8 trillion—more than India’s GDP today—in government revenues in 2030.

Where carbon pricing seeks to reduce hydrocarbon consumption, fossil fuel subsidies do the opposite and seeks to increase fossil fuel consumption. Fossil fuel subsidies are programs where government actions lower the cost of fossil fuel energy production, raises the price received by energy producers, or lowers the price paid by energy consumers. 

Although they’re politically popular, fossil fuel subsidies encourage overconsumption and inefficient use of carbon-intensive energy while diverting funds away from public spending in health, education, and social protection. Internationally, governments provide at least $775 billion to $1 trillion annually in subsidies.

Improve energy efficiency with more investment

Global investment in energy efficiency has continued to grow, increasing by 9% to $231 billion in 2016. The rate of growth was strongest in China at 24%, though Europe is still responsible for the largest share of global investment.

Figure 3 United States Environmental Protection Agency [Public domain]

Figure 3 United States Environmental Protection Agency [Public domain]

This translates into more jobs, too. AltEnergyStocks finds 5.3 jobs per $1 million for fossil fuel investments but over three times this, 16.7 jobs per $1 million for clean energy (energy efficiency and renewable energy). The analysis also notes the substantially higher quality and higher pay nature of clean energy jobs relative to fossil fuel employment.

Decarbonize the power sector

Decarbonization refers to the reduction or removal of carbon dioxide from energy sources. For example: The European Union's leading power companies have set themselves the goal of making their electricity carbon free by 2050. That means energy from 100% renewable sources.

Renewable energy, often referred to as clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. For example, sunlight or wind keep shining and blowing, even if their availability depends on time and weather. Total demand for renewable energy sources—including hydropower, wind, solar, biofuels, marine, geothermal—is expected to increase about 81% by 2040, at which time they will account for 20% of overall energy demand.

Costa Rica has operated with only renewable energy for 6 months. The heavy rains in the region have allowed the country to completely renounce fossil fuels, and to feed almost entirely on the electricity generated from 4 hydroelectric plants – with a little extra help from geothermal, solar green energy and wind projects

In 2016, Portland was the first city in the United States to ban fossil fuels. Portland unanimously decided to ban the creation of new infrastructures using Fossil Fuels as energy. The transportation and storing of coal, natural gas and oil is no longer allowed within the city, preventing expansion of fossil fuel facilities. California aims to phase out completely the use of fossil fuels for electricity by 2045 as well as generate 60% of California's energy from renewable energy sources by 2030. Similarly, Seattle, Washington, plans to have 100% renewable electric power by 2045.

Expand access to electricity and clean cooking

Figure 4  LED bulb  by Zain Ali.

Figure 4 LED bulb by Zain Ali.

Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report notes how critical it will be to connect the poorest and hardest to reach households. Off-grid solutions include solar lighting, solar home systems, and increasingly mini grids. Globally, at least 34 million people in 2017 gained access to basic electricity services through off-grid technologies. Over the past five years, renewables (mainly hydro and geothermal) have been the source of over one-third of new connections, and decentralized renewables are the source of 6% of new electricity access.

Why clean cooking? Today, 3 billion people still rely on traditional, inefficient cooking stoves which burn wood, charcoal, coal, animal dung or crop waste. The estimated health, environmental and economic cost of this continued use of solid fuels is a staggering $123 billion annually. Women and children are disproportionally affected by the health impacts, and bear much of the burden of collecting firewood or other traditional fuels. Greenhouse gas emissions from nonrenewable wood fuels alone amount to a gigaton of carbon dioxide per year – about 2 percent of global emissions.

According to the Clean Cooking Alliance, an estimated 37 million stoves and fuels were distributed in 2016, of which 30.8 million (83%) were clean and/or efficient. Cumulatively, an estimated 116 million stoves and fuels, including 80.9 million clean and/or efficient, have been distributed from 2010 to 2016. 

How Earth Law Strengthens the move away from fossil fuels

Extractive industries have treated nature as limitless property and resource. Only now we are finding out that there are limits, both to what we can extract as well as what natural ecosystems will bear. Earth Law is the idea that ecosystems have the right to exist, thrive, and evolve—and that Nature should be able to defend its rights in court, just like people can.

Earth Law gives ecosystems the same rights as people and corporations. This means that people can defend an ecosystem’s rights in court without having to prove that their own human rights were violated. Under Earth Law, courts assess monetary awards by looking at the cost of restoring ecosystems to their undamaged natural state. This allows for the defense of Nature in the courts—not only for the benefit of people, but also for the sake of Nature itself.

As countries and people begin more and more to pursue decarbonization, Earth Law can strengthen and connect people and organizations working to create a healthier environment. Through Earth Law, people could better hold their governments and companies in society accountable for their use of fossil fuels, and could urge them to decarbonize and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through banning fossil fuels. Earth Law can be a framework for countries, businesses and people as they work toward a ban on the burning and extraction of fossil fuels.

Earth Law Center (ELC) is building an international movement from the ground up, one that gives better grounding to the idea that humans have a responsibility for how we impact the world around us. The belief that nature – the species and ecosystems that comprise our world – has inherent rights has proven to be a galvanizing idea, and we work with local communities to help them organize around the rights of nature to protect their environment from the threats that they see. The heart of the ELC approach is to seek legal personhood for ecosystems and species, a designation similar to that given to corporations in U.S. law, and one that if done well will imply both rights for the entities so designated and responsibilities on the part of human beings and societies to respect those rights.

ELC can be used as a tool to revolutionize our use of energy sources, reduce our reliance on nonrenewable energy sources and lessen our emissions of greenhouse gases through fossil fuels.

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