If there is one world leader trying to look out for the planet as a whole, not just their own nation, it’s the UN secretary general. Last week, Antonio Guterres was resolute in the wake of the damning report from the IPCC on the perilious climate crisis. It should, he said, sound “a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet”.
He called for an end to “all new fossil fuel exploration and production”, and told countries to shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy.
One of the first tests of whether anyone is paying attention will be if somebody rips up the plans for what would be the world’s longest heated crude oil pipeline – the 1,443km (900-mile) east African crude oil pipeline (EACOP) that will run from oilfields in Uganda to the ocean ports of Tanzania. If it gets built, it’s is a sure sign that the world’s leaders are not listening.
The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide-USA (ELAW-USA) estimates that burning the 210,000 barrels of oil a day that will be transported by the pipeline will produce more than 34m metric tonnes of carbon annually. This is significantly greater than the current combined emissions of Uganda and Tanzania.
So far, the Chinese national oil company, French oil giant Total, and the governments of Uganda and Tanzania are pressing ahead, apparently putting the money that can be made ahead of the interests of the climate.
Even on purely economic terms, it’s a terrible bargain. In 2015, the Ugandan government estimated that climate crisis damages will collectively amount to 2-4% of the country’s gross domestic product between 2010 and 2050.
This is about $3.2 to $5.9bn annually, losses that will exponentially rise if crude oil extraction, export and use is encouraged. The climate crisis is costing lives and livelihoods in Uganda now, with flash floods and landslides taking lives and destroying public infrastructure such as roads and farmlands. Currently, communities that lived near Lake Albert have been displaced due to increased water levels. Sealed oilwells near Lake Albert were also submerged last year.
You can see the same kind of damage across the African continent: in 2019, for instance, cyclones Idai and Kenneth in southern Africa took the lives of more than 1,000 people. Millions more were left without food or basic services. Severe droughts in east Africa in 2011, 2017 and 2019 destroyed crops and livestock, leaving 15 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia with food and water shortages.
Yet whenever oil discoveries are made in Africa, governments move in haste to extract it without thinking of how people and broader economies will be affected. Little is done to analyse and publicly share information on how much revenue will be generated from the exploitation of fossil fuels vis-a-vis the economic and social costs of biodiversity loss, climate impacts, physical and economic displacement, and risks to livelihoods.
Other fears about the pipeline are well documented: physical and economic displacement; a delayed compensation process; threats to lives and livelihoods from oil spills; destruction of sites of spiritual value. More than 2,000 sq km of protected wildlife habitat faces significant disturbance. The governments and companies involved won’t even disclose key documents to the public to allow meaningful participation and informed consent. Not surprisingly, more than 1 million people have signed a global petition calling for the project to be axed.
But those numbers have to grow. The climate crisis is, in some ways, a crisis of inertia. We hear reports like last week’s dramatic missive from the IPCC, and for a few hours, maybe a few days, we’re shocked. But the oil companies count on our attention fading – because they’re focused on one thing: drilling for more.
In a world where the temperature is rising fast (and where solar power is now the cheapest source of energy), that makes no sense. The UN secretary general is right: either there’s a death knell for the fossil fuel industry or there’s a death knell for our civilisations, beginning, of course, with its poorest and most vulnerable people.
The IPCC report was full of deeply detailed computer models and high-level physics, but its bottom line was easy to understand: when you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging. If ground is broken as planned next April on this pipeline, the failure will be all of ours.
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org; Diana Nabiruma is senior programme officer at Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO); Omar Elmawi is coordinator of the #StopEACOP campaign