Paris-Texas, Imagining a Post-Oil Scotland

This summer everything seemed to come together. System failure surrounds us. Capitalism is facing a physical crisis that can’t be ignored. Coal, gas and oil have been capitalism’s main fuels since the industrial revolution. And yet, we’re told of all the fossil fuels ever consumed, more than half were burned in just the last 50 years.

As Nafeez Ahmed writes:

“Capitalism as we know it is over.”

Not overthrown by rebellion or taken down in revolution just running out of stuff to burn.

So suggests a new report commissioned by a group of scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The main reason?:

“We’re transitioning rapidly to a radically different global economy, due to our increasingly unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s environmental resources.

Climate change and species extinctions are accelerating even as societies are experiencing rising inequality, unemployment, slow economic growth, rising debt levels, and impotent governments. Contrary to the way policymakers usually think about these problems, the new report says that these are not really separate crises at all.

Rather, these crises are part of the same fundamental transition to a new era characterized by inefficient fossil fuel production and the escalating costs of climate change. Conventional capitalist economic thinking can no longer explain, predict, or solve the workings of the global economy in this new age, the paper says.”

It may be mundane but the reality is that Energy Return on Investment (EROI) – a simple ratio that measures how much energy we use to extract more energy – may be presenting the endgame for the fossil fuel economy that lies beneath western economics.

The timeline between our diminishing finite fuel resources, and our inability to transition to a low-carbon economy has been a dance between political intransigence, consumer duplicity and corporate greenwashing.

In a new book published by Pluto this month Simon Pirani explains the contradictions and roots of the crisis in “The Truth about the Fight Against Fossil Fuels”:

“When politicians and diplomats meet in Katowice, Poland, in December for the 2018 round of international climate negotiations, they will not even pretend to aim at cutting greenhouse gas emissions – mostly from burning fossil fuels – far enough to prevent dangerous climate change.
The negotiators’ modest aim is to leave Katowice with an agreed procedure for monitoring implementation of promises that countries made to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions at the Paris climate conference in 2015.

Even if all the governments involved keep all their promises (like that has ever happened!), we are heading by 2100 for global average temperatures 2.6 degrees above the pre-industrial level. The Paris agreement itself said that margin should be ‘well below’ 2 degrees, and that countries would ‘endeavour’ to keep it to 1.5 degrees.”

As Pirani explains:

“The failure in Paris to make the climate arithmetic add up was the culmination of decades of failure by the world’s leading states to slow down, let alone reverse, consumption growth of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) – which is the source of about three quarters of all human-made greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2017 were 56% higher than they were in 1992, a quarter century earlier, when the first international agreement to tackle climate change was made at the Rio summit.”

That’s an incredible fact which speaks to a global failure.

Now, for the first time experts have calculated the precise figure of carbon Scotland can (and cannot) produce to keep in accord with the Paris agreement “Experts call for North Sea oil closure to cut climate pollution”.

“Carbon emissions from petrochemical plants, oil terminals, cement works and other major polluters will have to cease if Scotland is to play its part in reducing the risk of heatwaves, droughts, storms and floods caused by global warming, they warn.

They also call on the Scottish Government to “decarbonise” transport and heating, boost energy efficiency in buildings, cut waste, expand forests by a third and restore peat bogs. Ministers must toughen their targets to cut climate pollution to “net zero” by 2050, they say.”

On Leadership and Change

The Herald reports:

“For the first time the scientists worked out Scotland’s carbon budget under the international climate agreement made in Paris in 2015. They conclude that for Scotland to meet its global responsibilities it can only emit a total of 300 million tonnes more carbon dioxide – meaning it has to cut emissions by at least ten per cent every year starting now.”

The report points out that if the world is to meet international climate targets 70-80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground. “Scotland needs to begin an urgent and phased closure of its oil and gas sector,” it says.

Now this is going to cause some problems.

No-one really wants to do anything, even though the overwhelming evidence is that the world is teetering on the brink of catastrophic change.

Real courageous leadership is conspicuous by its absence.

No-one wants to give up the lifestyle they’ve assumed is their right.

At either end of income scale in developed countries there’s little appetite for change.

Many of the wealthiest people have made their money from resource exploitation and can’t see beyond it.

Many people suffering in poverty don’t see how this ‘crisis’ is to do with them or how they might have agency to change such a reality.

Many people who want to see an independent Scotland are still obsessed by the “It’s Scotland’s Oil” trope of the 1970s. Many will no doubt claim that “it will make no difference” and we should use every last drop.

I fully expect this column to be flooded by such comments afterwards.

Of course, it’s not Scotland’s oil, its Shell’s Exxon’s and BP’s. And yes we could tax them and yes we could create an Oil Fund – but we would be doing so at least thirty years too late. Other emerging industries, and non-industries have far more potential and far less destructive impact.

We need to stop being obsessed with oil.

We need to abandon fossil fuels.

We have most of the technology in place and we are remarkably blessed with tidal, wave, wind and hydro capacity.

It’s a weird space to be in where the climate deniers are us, even in the face of overwhelming crisis, changing weather patterns and extinctions.

The report is scarily precise, naming companies and attributing specific emissions to each of them. We can close them down, we can find alternative employment, but we won’t, not just out of the exertion of corporate power, but out of our own complicity, cowardice and inertia.

That’s how this ends, by us doing nothing at all.


TABLE: Scotland top 20 climate polluters

plant / tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted in 2016

Petroineos refinery, Grangemouth / 1.65m
Longannet power station, Fife / 1.64m (now closed)
ExxonMobile ethylene plant, Mossmorran / 885,580
Combined heat and power plant, Grangemouth / 614,863
SSE power station, Peterhead / 602,641
Tarmac cement plant, Dunbar / 537,029
Ineos Infrastructure, Grangemouth / 495,214
Ineos Chemicals, Grangemouth / 486,809
RWE biomass plant, Glenrothes / 438,000
E.ON biomass plant, Lockerbie / 370,965
Shell gas plant, Peterhead / 356,334
Ineos Forties Pipeline System, Grangemouth / 351,262
UPM-Kymmene paper mill, Irvine / 279,483
Norboard chipboard factory, Cowie / 268,160
Total gas plant, Shetland / 235,234
Engie oil terminal, Shetland / 211,741
Shell gas plant, Mossmorran / 193,554
William Grant whisky distillers, Girvan / 152,913
Repsol oil terminal, Orkney / 144,206
O-I glass plant, Alloa / 141,902

Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Comments (14)

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  1. babs nicgriogair says:

    I totally agree with this. We must imagine & implement a greener more sustainable future 4 us all. No brainer.

  2. Graham Peter King says:

    Well said!

  3. Mathew says:

    Excellent article. I hope George Kerevan reads it.

  4. Pogliaghi says:

    The implication that North Sea extraction is incompatible with Scotland’s state-climate-rhetoric (because that’s what “targets” are: rhetoric) — is well drawn.

    The idea that the finiteness of fossil resources (colloqually: peak oil theory) would serve as a backstop to climate inaction is long discredited. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre which ( I think ) produced this “name’n’shame” list frequently makes that point. Also, EROEI is the great factor perpetuating the FF economy, not putting the brakes on it. I’m not sure this point is clearly understood. Fossil fuels remain much more technically effective energy resources than renewables, and even nuclear, and there are lots of them left to get at. That’s why we need strong policy or revolution or both, or we’re doomed.

    1. Can you explain what you mean? “The idea that the finiteness of fossil resources (colloqually: peak oil theory) would serve as a backstop to climate inaction is long discredited.” I genuinely don’t understand, sorry.

      1. Pogliaghi says:

        Yep. Simply the old fashioned idea that we would run out of coal oil or gas, or that the declining quality of what we can extract, will make the transition to a post-carbon economy inevitable in time to avert climate catastrophe. The fact is, there’s more than enough carbon fuels available, and economically available, to take us beyond 6C of warming.

        1. I see, yes. WE wont ‘run out’ of anything, though it does become more expensive to extract. But you are quite right – this reality does nothing to awaken us to the crisis.

          [Was kinda the point I made].

  5. SleepingDog says:

    We have the climate and energy models, what we need are models to manage the social and cultural attitudinal transition away from profitarianism. Presumably state-scale worldview flips have been managed before (I think England flipped between Catholic and Protestant a few times in rapid succession). And the state puts a lot of effort in transitioning public views when an official enemy becomes an official ally (or vice versa). Will we be able to feel the earth-shaking gear-change when fossil fuels go the way of radioactive toothpaste, and what might that tell us about how state-manufactured our culture is? Will there be widespread climate conversion, or will a generation of deniers be left to die out like British Anglicans?

  6. Me Bungo Pony says:

    I notice a couple of Biomass plants in the above list. I was under the impression that Biomass was carbon neutral as the carbon in the wood, etc would be released into the atmosphere whether we burned it for energy or left it to rot. Is this not the case?

  7. Bob says:

    “We need to abandon fossil fuels.”

    Your list of what we need to do should include:

    We need to stop another country taking control of our oil resources.
    We need to stop another country giving profits from our oil resources to multinational companies.
    We need to stop another country impose penalties to Scotland on connecting to the national grid.
    We need to stop another country give tax concessions to petrochemical multi national companies.
    We need to stop another country impose tax penalties on our renewable energy industry.

    You did not mention if the Scottish government is represented at Decembers meeting in Poland, I suspect not.

    Scotland, where you publish, has no control of the North Sea oil industry or its tax regime and if that were to change could fundamentally change our relationship with the petrochemicals industry and resulting carbon footprint.

    1. What you say is very true, though we do have control lover certain areas and – its very good to see that the SG is using the powers it does have now to exert change and invest in the future.

  8. Cathy says:

    Bob makes an excellent point. Others make dubious decisions for Scotland. That’s why we have the SNP trying to represent the views of the Scottish people.

    1. It is a good point and there are some constraints on what the SG can do around energy and taxation. But this shouldn’t be used as a reason to do nothing within the power we do have.

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