At the end of June, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, announced plans to invest $44 billion in the “pre-salt” oil fields in the country’s coastal waters, whose holdings of at least 50 billion barrels are one of the biggest oil finds of the past three decades.
Extracting this oil from its ultra-deep-water home will be a fantastic technological achievement — a tribute to how we can now harvest energy resources from the most extreme environments. From deep water drilling for oil to fracking for gas and arctic mining, there are no more limits.
This is astonishing. But it should also be alarming. So clever have humans become that we can squeeze what we want from our planet’s natural systems, seemingly without any limits. But this is not matched by our ability to control the impacts of our advances or to live within our means.
Worse still, we are tempted by our successes to exaggerate our power to solve the problems of the world — that if we really need to, we will be able to. We believe that our ingenuity, though it may cause some problems from time to time, will also help us get out of them.
Yet the evidence increasingly points in the opposite direction. Since the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, investment in technology that could counter global warming has been on a tiny scale compared to that spent on technology that contributes to expanding energy usage, and thus emissions.
Investment in carbon sequestration research is usually measured in tens of millions of dollars, occasionally a few hundred million. The United States, for example, is spending $1 billion on carbon capture and utilization research. In Britain, the government is pouring about £1 billion into carbon capture and storage technology (where the carbon from power stations is liquefied and stored in depleted oil fields under the North Sea).
Large as these sums sound, they are insignificant compared to what is being committed to oil and gas development, such Petrobras’s investment plans — let alone the $1.9 trillion that IHS Global Insight, an economic research company, forecasts will be spent on shale gas capital investments between 2010 and 2035.
Why, despite the scientific evidence on the long-term catastrophic implications of continuing with a carbon intensive economy, are we continuing with plans to create a future that is even more dependent on fossil fuels?
By far the most important reason is to maintain an economic model based on growth that depends on promoting relentless consumption, which we do by actively encouraging those who extract and use carbon-based energy resources to be undercharged for both the resources they use and the negative externalities they bring about.
What should we do about this?
First, we must stop working only on our technological capacities, or thinking that fancy economic tools can help us. Instead, we must focus our efforts on developing institutional capacities.
We must demand that science be directed to serve the public good by helping governments to make more informed decisions rather than just aiding the development of new technologies.
At the same time, we must make our governments strong enough to be able to redirect human ingenuity, putting in place mechanisms such as strict licensing procedures that slow the rate at which technologies can be used to exploit resources. These would require stronger proof that a new technology will not cause irreversible resource or environmental damage — to ensure that disasters like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill are not repeated.
We should also remove fossil fuel subsidies, especially in the developed world. Globally, subsidies to fossil fuels are around $600 billion a year, according to the Global Subsidies Initiative, an arm of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, with some $100 billion being provided directly to producers.
How can we do this in the face of such vested and powerful interests as the oil and gas sector? Just as banking should once again become a “utility,” so should energy. Such a move toward far stronger regulation would make it possible to develop institutional capacities to shape which direction research and investment takes.
This would not mean a rejection of business, nor of technology. Research is vital for us to develop the energy sources and efficiencies the world will need, especially developing countries. Rules that restrain the development of extractive technologies can become a catalyst for other new technologies that allow us to live within our resource and environmental means.
Most important, we must not assume that technology will come up with an answer. It may, but it also may not. As we are seeing in the United States with fracking, if the incentives remain as they currently are, the incentives are too great for companies to seek new sources of carbon-based energy.
We need an end to our reliance on market forces that encourage us to find new sources of fossil fuels. Otherwise, instead of developing the institutional strengths that may allow humanity to avoid catastrophic outcomes, we will find ourselves faced with companies pursuing such madcap schemes as that of mining asteroids.
Technologically, such a feat might be magnificent. But meeting the challenges of the 21st century require action on earth, not in space.
Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, a pan-Asian think tank, and author of Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet.