A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the book Ending Fossil Fuels, by Holly Jean Buck. She argues that there has been plenty of attention on accelerating renewable energy and clean technologies, but not enough attention on the other end of the equation – eliminating coal, oil and gas.
The book presents many reasons why it makes sense to wind down fossil fuels as a specific goal, and I wanted to name a handful of them.
Public health: Measuring the exact impact of fossil fuels on human health is difficult. If somebody dies of lung cancer, that’s what goes on the death certificate – not the pollution that caused the cancer in the first place. But there have been global estimates of how many people are killed every year by fossil fuel pollution. One 2020 study suggested 4 million premature deaths a year. A major study from two years earlier put the figure at twice that, meaning that fossil fuels play a role in one in five deaths worldwide.
Whatever the exact figure, millions of people are killed every year by the pollution from coal in particular, as well as diesel particulates and other pollutants. Millions more are affected by asthma and other lung conditions, heart disease, headaches, stunted growth, and much more besides. Many places have already seen the benefits of ending coal power generation, and the cleaner air that results. Many more benefits await those who can phase out diesel, gas and oil altogether.
Environmental justice: A closely related reason to eliminate fossil fuels is that their negative effects are not evenly distributed. Instead, the health impacts tend to fall heaviest on marginalised communities, whether that is people of colour, lowers castes or minority tribes. Indigenous people see their land and waterways polluted by oil companies, their air polluted by gas flaring. From Shell in Nigeria to Chevron in Ecuador, to Total in Myanmar, there is a long and sorry history of fossil fuel extraction ‘sacrifice zones’ – places out of sight and out of mind that bear the brunt of the pollution.
This is true locally too, with poorer communities and people of colour more likely to live near refineries, coal power stations and other toxic sites. Every time one of these places is closed down, replaced with renewable energy, it’s a gain for justice as well as the environment.
Ending corruption: One of the reasons that the fossil fuel industry has got away with such extensive harm, injustice and environmental destruction, is that they are immensely powerful. From the oil barons of the last century to today’s oligarchs, fossil fuels have created enormous fortunes for a privileged polluter-elite. This has led to all kinds of distortions of democracy, at every level. Fossil fuels prop up odious regimes all over the world, empowering dictators while destroying the atmosphere.
Fossil fuel companies have held back international climate action and undermined clean technologies. Oil and gas have been at the heart of countless conflicts. Ending the fossil fuel era could finally break up the toxic power bases of a poisonous industry.
There are other reasons, including energy democracy, and Holly Jean Buck mentions the entrenched power of fossil fuels and how it holds back innovation. So this isn’t an exhaustive list. Neither does make ending fossil fuels risk-free. It still has to be done well. The end of the fossil fuel era should be planned and orderly, so that nobody gets left behind. But there are compelling reasons to go beyond net zero, beyond cuts to emissions, and choose to end fossil fuels.