Climate action will change technological systems

Demolition of the Richborough power station, UK
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Moving away from fossil fuels will require transforming our technological, social, and economic systems, rather than focussing on individual consumption.

Thinking about these systems and their history can sharpen our understanding of how fossil fuel use has risen to levels associated with dangerous global warming – and of how a transition away from the fossil-fuel-intensive economy might happen.

Plastics pollution, that ultimate symbol of egregious fossil fuel consumption, has triggered a wave of public anger that has shown, once again, people’s instinctive concern about our relationship with the natural world.

Public revulsion at plastic waste was stoked by Blue Planet II, the UK’s most watched TV series in 2017, with its shocking scenes of sea creatures being starved, choked, enmeshed and tortured by plastic waste. It also had an international impact: when an internet-based TV channel in China screened it, 80 million people downloaded it.

Media coverage of plastics has focused on individual consumption. Appeals are made to people not to buy plastic bags, and coffee chains seek public approval by promising to use fewer plastic cups. The larger picture – of farm-to-supermarket supply chains, of industrial uses, of the petrochemicals industry that produces most plastics, and of the corporations that control these processes – is often ignored.

Embedded systems

Petrochemicals and plastics is just one of the technological systems through which most fossil fuels in the world are consumed. Others include electricity networks, aviation and military systems, car-based urban transport systems, urban built environments and industrial agriculture systems.

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Thinking about these systems and their history can sharpen our understanding of how fossil fuel use has risen to levels associated with dangerous global warming – and of how a transition away from the fossil-fuel-intensive economy might happen.

Thinking about these systems and their history can sharpen our understanding of how fossil fuel use has risen to levels associated with dangerous global warming – and of how a transition away from the fossil-fuel-intensive economy might happen.

The ways in which these technological systems are embedded in the social and economic systems in which we live also matters.

Decisions made by those who control these systems have ratcheted up fuel consumption consistently. Consumption growth accelerated during the post-war boom – and accelerated again in the 1990s and 2000s, after the world’s governments had acknowledged the danger of global warming at the Rio summit of 1992. Throughout, consumption has reflected widening social inequalities.

The history of plastics illustrates these points well. The availability of cheap fossil fuels in the post-war economic boom produced the first jump in output. Global plastics output was one million tonnes in 1949, six million tonnes in 1960 and 100 million tonnes in 1989. 

After the 1973 oil price shock, oil products demand fell, and with it the fortunes of the petrochemicals industry. But globalisation in the 1980s, and the “roaring nineties” economic boom, not only pushed plastics consumption to new heights in rich countries, but saw it proliferate in parts of the global south too. 

Wasteful consumption 

Most plastics are used in packaging, and construction. In the 1980s, their use in rich-country supply chains mushroomed. Glass milk bottles, paper milk cartons and other recyclable forms of packaging were replaced by plastics.

Research in the UK showed that most of this plastic never reaches the consumer: larger volumes are used in moving goods between farms, factories, warehouses and supermarkets. As any supply-chain worker will tell you, the just-in-time packaging and transport strategies that gulped down more plastics were aimed above all at cutting costs, including labour costs, and reducing workforces.  

In rich countries, the 1980s also heralded throwaway culture. It became cheaper to buy new than to repair – again, at least partly because of labour costs.

Consumption became more wasteful: for example, American researchers found that $29.4 billion worth of plastic toys had been bought in the US in 2001, about 69 per child under the age of 12. Even here, though, it was not just about individual consumers: many of the toys were given away with fast-food meals, an advertising tactic to rope children into eating unhealthy, industrially-produced food.

The 1980s also heralded the international trade in waste, most of which is produced by rich-world industry (rather than final consumers), much of which is plastic, and much of which ends up in oceans. 

The complicity of the world’s governments also has a history. The Norwegian ocean explorer Thor Heyerdahl – who older readers may remember for his voyages on wooden rafts – raised the alarm about plastics pollution of oceans in the 1970s.

The recycling symbol, introduced in 1983, became a fig-leaf for polluting businesses: 40 years later, in 2013, only 14 percent of plastics were being recycled. Regulation was, and remains, laughably inadequate in most countries.

Transforming systems

In Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018),  I have looked not only at the most egregious examples of fossil fuel use, such as plastics manufacture and aviation, but at the larger ones that account for most of the world’s fossil fuel use: electricity systems (about one third), cars and roads (probably one quarter or more) and urban heating.

Another question any historian has to tackle is how the international climate negotiations that began at the Rio summit in 1992 have failed so spectacularly to reverse rising fossil fuel use - which rose by nearly three eighths in the quarter century 1990-2015.

We all have opinions about this, of course – but we must beware of normalising it. It is a failure of the world’s leading states, potentially more serious than the breakdown of the 19th century geopolitical order that paved the way to the first world war in 1914.

One key theme is that, insidious and reactionary as climate science denial is - just look at the White House in 2018 - it never dominated the Rio process.

What counted, much more, was principled opposition to binding targets, which united both Republicans and Democrats in the US, and the belief that market mechanisms should be used to constrain fossil fuel consumption, to which almost the entire European political elite also subscribed.

This led to the wasted years of claims that the Kyoto protocol was working. Meanwhile, governments were pouring hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies into both production and consumption of fossil fuels. Counting those is a much better guide to governments’ priorities than listening to politicians’ speeches.

History shows that global fossil fuel use has been driven up by the expansion of technological systems, in the context of the expansion of the global capitalist economy since the mid twentieth century. There are no easy formulas for the transition away from fossil fuels. It means transforming not only the technological systems, but social and economic systems too.

This Author 

Simon Pirani is senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies and author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018).

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