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Why equity is key to the success of fossil fuel transitions

At a recent panel, SEI senior scientist Peter Erickson joined fossil fuel development and energy economics experts to discuss the importance of decreasing fossil fuel production and the equity implications stemming from this transition. Each panelist provided different perspectives on what transitions could look like at global, national and local levels.

Emily Yehle / Published on 4 March 2020

Fuel train passing through solar field in Ontario, Canada. Source: Mike Molnar on Flickr 

To successfully transition away from fossil fuels, policy-makers at every level need to consider equity, according to scientists on a recent panel about aligning climate goals and policies.

The panel – organized by SEI and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – took place at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. SEI Senior Scientist Peter Erickson joined experts in fossil fuel development and energy economics to discuss why policies that target fossil fuel extraction are crucial to meeting climate goals. Equity, they all agreed, was key to the success of a low-carbon transition.

Erickson outlined the challenge: the world is on track to produce 120% more fossil fuels than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. Governments encourage that overproduction, outlined in the recent Production Gap Report, through subsidies and ambitious energy plans.

Reversing that trend, Erickson said, includes policies on just transitions, which are “natural and essential complement[s] to fossil fuel reduction.”

Panelists discussed what an equitable transition looks like, both on the global and local level. Roberto Schaeffer, a professor in energy economics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, emphasized the need to consider how developing countries can manage a low-carbon transition when they rely on fossil fuel production for economic development.

From left to right: Roberto Schaeffer, Tarika Powell, Gretchen Goldman, Peter Erickson. Photo: SEI

Using integrated assessment models (IAMs), Schaeffer is investigating the possible outcomes of allowing developing countries to continue fossil fuel production while still meeting climate goals. That path, he said, would cost approximately USD 400 billion more than business-as-usual, because we would be exploiting more expensive fuels, and would need to invest more into advanced technologies to capture emissions. He suggested that rather than spend this money on allowing countries to further develop their fossil fuel industries, we could instead focus on helping countries “leapfrog” to more sustainable development.

At a local level, policy-makers need to consider vulnerable communities who suffer from the “overlapping and cascading impacts” of fossil fuel industries, said Tarika Powell, an expert on justice dimensions of fossil fuel development.

She emphasized that fossil fuel development has impacts on communities all along the supply chain, not just at the point of extraction. Coal dust can contaminate waterways and air along train routes, for example, and methane leaks along gas pipelines can be significant. The burden of these impacts often falls disproportionately on already disadvantaged communities, through “accidents of geography” that lead to more facilities being situated in low-income communities, and communities of color. Powell pointed to the US Pacific Northwest to give examples of how communities are pushing back against these impacts, using local land use regulations to limit the development of new fossil fuel facilities.

Emerging policies provide some hope that policy-makers are beginning to prioritize just transitions. Prompted by audience questions, panelists expressed optimism about the Green New Deal resolution, which emphasizes the need to retrain workforces and center the voices of vulnerable communities. Several countries have also adopted policies to help oil, gas and coal workers and their communities adjust as their industry declines.

Whatever the policy, a holistic approach – including regulations to restrict fossil fuel production and support for vulnerable communities – is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

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