‘The long farewell’: navigating a future without fossil fuels

It is a question which has resurfaced time and again since the conversation around decarbonisation first began: what will become of those millions of people worldwide who make their living from fossil fuels when the industry becomes obsolete? The first lockdown gave a glimpse into the chaos which can ensue from an unpredicted slump in demand for fossil fuels, with the price of US oil going into the negative for the first time in history. Decarbonisation is, however, inevitable, and we must find a way to transition towards greener energy sources whilst ensuring the humanitarian impact is not too great.

Just last week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the 37 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to end to all projects reliant on coal by 2030, with a 2040 deadline for poorer countries. Guterres emphasised the importance of investing in green energy, stating that this must be a collective effort if we are to remain below the 1.5C temperature rise and halt the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The fossil fuel industry remains, however, a major source of employment. The 2011 UNEP report ‘Towards a Green Economy’ found that over 10 million people were directly employed by the fossil fuel industry worldwide, and though the number of people employed by the UK fossil fuel industry has decreased by 5,213 in the last ten years, the oil industry continues to generate over 40% of GDP in the Middle East

So, what does this mean for those who earn their living from the fossil fuel industry? It is not just those who are directly implicated within the mining process, or even investors within the industry who will be impacted: in many communities, the wages earned in the industry are much higher than those available within other similar industries. In many Middle Eastern countries in particular, social services – such as subsidised education programmes – are funded by the revenue created by the fossil fuel industry, meaning that unless a suitable and equally lucrative alternative is found to support them, these countries are at risk of extreme social discontent. Whilst richer and more economically stable countries such as the US can diversify their industries on a larger and faster scale, this is not the case for the Middle East, in which there is a lack of comprehension of the urgency of the situation on a local and even national level. Indeed, whilst Qatar and Saudi Arabia have more mobility on this level – with Saudi Arabia having recently developed their plan to channel US$500 billion into smart city Neom (though this in itself poses questions as to the viability of redeploying workers from outdated industries due to the prevalence of robots and drones) – less wealthy countries such as Lebanon and Iraq appear to be in no hurry to invest in areas such as culture and tourism, this largely due to fraught political situations. Indeed, for many the focus remains on increasing production before the deadline of 2040, with no emphasis on developing green alternatives.

Professor Paul Stevens has discussed the need for a ‘dynamic private sector’ in order to successfully transition towards green energy, something which the US at least have on their side. This is visible in the town of Craig, Colorado. A mining community surrounded by power plants, the fossil fuel industry has not only provided income for generations of families, but also forms a large part of their identity. The community plans to stick to the UN’s targets, shifting to renewable energy by 2030, but as of yet there is still much uncertainty as to where those involved in the mining process will find employment. So far, there has been a fairly positive change in focus towards the tourism industry – aided by Craig’s status as elk hunting capital of the world – with lots of workers happy to become outdoor guides or increase their involvement within areas such as fishing or mountain biking. There is also the opportunity to continue a career in mining but focusing instead on the metal industry, in which demand for copper and gold is increasing to create lithium batteries within the green energy industry.

Finally, what is the best way of implementing this change? A ‘just transition’ is one in which decarbonisation occurs synchronically with redeploying workers to avoid large-scale unemployment. Just transition funds are being implemented worldwide to reduce the impact of this; 40 billion euros have been made available for use by the fund across Europe, with support for both local and national level projects. Despite this, and the fact that this transition has been in the pipeline for years – providing governments with more than enough time to make necessary changes – for some countries no amount of time will be enough to put all the necessary frameworks in place. It seems that in the Middle East, the only moment at which the change will occur is when there is no time left – and perhaps the inevitable shock of this is the only thing that will work.

There is no longer any question as to whether we will move away from fossil fuels, but rather, to use Stevens’ words, how we will ‘deal with the side effects’ of this transition. As with most issues concerning the overhaul of society as we know it, this comes down to money: ‘the places that do want to transition don’t have enough of it’, whilst those that do are ‘still too busy making money from fossil fuels’. With any luck, governments will continue to invest in re-education programmes to guarantee that those affected gain the necessary skills to find new employment opportunities, ensuring that the transition is as effective, safe, and comfortable as possible. 

Featured image: by Andrew Hart on Flickr under Creative Commons

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