Fossil fuel companies under fire in year of climate chaos and record profits
Global leaders call for action against fossil fuels
Various leaders from countries around the world are speaking out against the continued use of fossil fuels, citing it as the culprit behind climate change and an increase in extreme weather events.
"The climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis."
That sentiment made its way through New York City last week, as the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Climate Ambition Summit and NYC Climate Week collectively drew in thousands of participants. But it wasn't only written on protest placards.
Echoing up through the chambers of the United Nations, the pointed message was hard to miss.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has a track record of being direct about climate risks, didn't mince words as he hosted the first-ever UN Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday.
"We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels," Guterres said in his opening remarks.
WATCH | Guterres kicks off UN Climate Ambition Summit:
Canadian climate commitments scrutinized at UN climate summit
As countries call for more urgent action on fossil fuel emissions, Canada was called out for expansion of fossil fuel production in the last year. Canada defended its record, pointing to the coming emissions cap of the country's oil and gas sector.
He was followed by high-profile speakers from 34 countries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But UN under-secretary-general Melissa Fleming challenged Trudeau publicly before he took the floor, saying "Canada was one of the largest expanders of fossil fuels last year."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom was also in town and emphasized the connection between climate change and "the burning of oil, the burning of gas, the burning of coal," adding that "we need to call that out."
Newsom's speech came on the heels of a bombshell lawsuit filed by the state of California accusing five of the world's largest oil and gas companies of deceiving the public about the risks of fossil fuels.
"It's obvious that the climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis," said Catherine Abreu, founder of Canadian non-profit Destination Zero, which works with climate groups across the country, and who was in New York. "But we haven't heard leaders say it out loud so clearly before."
Even the 27-page Paris Agreement, which was adopted by 196 parties in 2015 as the foundation of international commitments on climate change, doesn't mention coal, oil or gas.
"For over 30 years, the international system that countries set up to help them co-operate on addressing the climate crisis has been ignoring the cause of the climate crisis," said Abreu. "This is a moment for honesty."
Fossil fuels account for most emissions
As fires, floods and heat waves struck across the globe this summer, scientists quantified links between natural disasters and emissions. For example, the World Weather Attribution initiative, a U.K.-based group, found the changing climate made the weather conditions that drove the Quebec wildfires this spring two times more likely.
WATCH | How Canada's wildfires are intensifying climate change:
How Canada’s record-breaking wildfires are intensifying climate change
Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season is pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere than all other emission sources in the country combined. CBC’s international climate correspondent Susan Ormistion goes deep into the Boreal forest for a first-hand look at the impact on the climate crisis.
Scientists agree fossil fuel use is the primary cause of climate change, because the carbon had been previously stored deep underground and out of the carbon cycle. Unlocking the carbon through extraction and burning turns it into a gas — carbon dioxide — and injects it into our atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm.
According to climate data site Carbon Brief, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels accounted for approximately 91 per cent of worldwide emissions in 2022. (The remaining nine per cent came from land use, such as agriculture.)
John Marshall, founder and CEO of Potential Energy Coalition, a marketing and research firm focused on climate, says the comments made by political leaders in the past weeks reflect a progression in the rhetoric.
"I think the leaders, both in the political and the policy side, are getting much more concrete about focusing on accountability than they have in the past," said Marshall.
This coincides with increasing proof that oil and gas executives have knowingly misled the public for decades.
In January, a study published in the journal Science confirmed that ExxonMobil's scientists had made projections since the 1970s about the extent of global warming that were "at least as skillful as those of independent academic and government models." This built on earlier revelations that oil executives had known about the warming effect of carbon emissions as early as the 1950s.
At the same time, despite huge profits in 2022, several of the biggest energy companies are backsliding on commitments to participate in the energy transition, citing a need to be more focused on shareholders.
In June, Shell's newly appointed CEO, Wael Sawan, announced the oil giant would reverse a previous pledge to reduce oil production every year until 2030. Last month, Suncor CEO Rich Kruger told journalists the company needed to create more value for shareholders by focusing on the oilsands.
"There has been a disproportionate emphasis on the longer-term energy transition," Kruger said.
The International Energy Agency, which has said the world must halt new oil and gas development to hit targets of no more than 1.5 C of warming, predicted investment in fossil fuel supply will rise by six per cent in 2023, reaching $950 billion US.
And while Canada is the first country in the G20 to phase out "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies," the world's total fossil fuel subsidies in 2022 were approximately $7 trillion US, according to the International Monetary Fund.
In reaction to all this, Christiana Figueres, widely credited as the architect of the Paris Agreement, wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera in July entitled "I Thought Fossil Fuel Firms Could Change. I Was Wrong."
The piece addressed her previously held belief that with their leadership and expertise, legacy energy companies like Exxon and Shell could help decarbonize the global economy.
Last Thursday, Figueres, a self-proclaimed "stubborn optimist," told a group of reporters at a New York climate event that "I was one of the most patient and open to [fossil fuel companies], because I firmly believe everyone has to contribute to this solution."
But she said "instead of using the out-of-the-park profits that they've had in the past 12 to 24 months to accelerate their decarbonization, by investing more into renewables … they've been doing actually the opposite."
The veteran diplomat sees a disappointment similar to hers echoing through civil society, saying the Sunday March to End Fossil Fuels on Sept. 17, for example, was unique in its specificity.
"I haven't seen before a march in New York during [UN General] Assembly week that was specifically focused on fossil fuels," Figueres said. "I would say [the oil companies'] social licence to operate has come to a screeching halt."
Clarity around cause offers motivation
John Marshall noted that people need to see a viable path forward in order to accept messages about climate change, and the accountability part helps.
"When you focus on the cause and what needs to happen to the cause, it is very motivating for people, because they understand," Marshall said. "One of the biggest challenges with the general public on climate is they don't necessarily feel like there's any sense of a clear solution."
WATCH | UN secretary-general says world must draw down fossil fuel production:
UN secretary general calls for an end to world's 'addiction to fossil fuels'
UN Secretary General António Guterres is warning that time is running out to get serious about climate change while speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The secretary general says the world is 'flirting with climate disasters,' with a new horror story every week.
He acknowledges there is a risk in finger-pointing.
"Everyone's in favour of limiting pollution. The elimination of an industry doesn't resonate as much," he said. "A message of 'keep it in the ground' we've found to be fairly polarizing."
Abreu emphasizes that direct language attributing climate change to fossil fuel extraction is not an attack on those whose livelihoods currently depend on it. Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore made a similar point at a TED Summit in Detroit this summer.
"It's not that the men and women who worked in fossil fuels the last century and a half aren't due our gratitude — they are. They didn't cause this," Gore said.
Abreu said along with accountability, the message about the future of fossil fuels needs to be careful and inclusive.
"I think and I hope that climate communicators are getting better at really acknowledging when we're talking about phasing out fossil fuels, we're talking about doing that within the context of a just transition that takes care of those workers."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jill English is the International Climate Producer for CBC News. Working with Senior Correspondent Susan Ormiston, she covers the impacts of climate change on people, places and power dynamics around the world.
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