‘It’s fossil capital, stupid!’

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Extinction Rebellion climate change activists marched through London for a second day of protests on 10 April 2022. Image: Alisdare Hickson

The pursuit of profits under capitalism means the fossil fuel industry continues to drive us to the edge of climate catastrophe.

And yet despite all that is known business continues largely as usual.

Capitalism is a system that involves a never-ending search for profit. The search for profit is what drives fossil-fuel companies onward.

Fossil-fuel companies are primarily responsible for the extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas  - with consumer demand a secondary consideration.

The extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas is mainly responsible for adding large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.


Industrial farming is also responsible for adding large quantities of methane - mainly from burping ruminants, and nitrous oxide - mainly from artificial fertilisers.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are greenhouse gases, meaning that increasing their concentration in the atmosphere results in higher global temperatures.

Higher global temperatures result in climate change, which can cause serious harm to all living systems - most recently documented in Bill McGuire’s Hothouse Earth.

This is what we know about how climate breakdown happens. Indeed, it's all we need to know. And yet despite all that is known business continues largely as usual. This is despite the increasing global concern about the effects of climate change.

And despite the Lofoten Declaration in 2017 calling on fossil fuel producers to end fossil fuel development and manage the decline of existing infrastructure, as required by the Paris Agreement (Muttitt et al, 2016; Scott, 2018).


Although fossil fuel production needs to decrease by six per cent a year, fossil fuel companies are planning an increase of two per cent a year from 2020 to 2030, doubling the production consistent with the 1.5 degree limit (Production Gap Report, 2020). The production gap continues to increase rather than decrease (Production Gap Report, 2021).  

No large oil company has committed to cut oil and gas output before 2030 (Carbon Tracker Initiative, 2020), and capital expenditure on energy by fossil-fuel companies remains at 99.2 per cent of the total, with only 0.8 per cent on renewable energy and carbon capture and storage (IEA, 2020).

Currently, national oil companies alone plan to invest $400 billion in oil and gas projects by 2030, which will result in overspending the global carbon budget and taking the world over the 2 degrees warming limit (Manley and Heller, 2021). China has set a target of net zero by 2060 but its five-year plan from 2021 envisages continued expansion of so-called ‘clean coal’ (Normile, 2021).

And yet despite all that is known business continues largely as usual.

To support fossil fuel companies, the biggest banks have continued to increase their investments in them, even in the covid year of 2020 (Rainforest Action Network, 2021).

One might have thought that the increasing risk of fossil fuels becoming unextractable in the future would have discouraged such support, but this would be to ignore the promise of huge profits that can be made before the transition kicks in.


So fossil capital and agri-businesses are largely responsible for causing climate change. Oil companies such as Exxon and Shell have known this for decades (as early as 1957 - Grasso, 2022, p25), but they have lied and cheated throughout, using their huge wealth and influence to avoid being required to admit that responsibility.

Since the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to two degrees was signed in 2016, fossil fuel companies have spent billions of dollars on trying to undermine it (Influence Map, 2019). 

Tragically, they have largely succeeded in this enterprise. In recent years, they have changed their tactics from outright climate scepticism and denial to greenwashing such as setting bogus targets of net zero carbon based on unproven technologies of carbon capture and storage and on reforestation at a questionable scale (Kusnetz, 2020).

But nothing has really changed. The siren voices of these merchants of doubt, with their self-serving discourses of climate delay, continue to hold sway in the world’s corridors of power.


Over the years, the abject failure of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even to mention fossil fuels in its publications, not even in its 2018 Summary for Policymakers on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, and the continuing dominance of fossil fuel-linked companies in the Conferences of Parties (the main international decision-making body on climate change) bear testimony to fossil capital’s continuing hegemony.

The prospects for a green recovery from the Covid pandemic have already faded as only 2.5 per cent of recovery spending has been on green activities (Callaghan and Murdock, 2021).

It was only in 2021 that the International Energy Agency (IEA) recognised that the fossil fuel industry’s business model was not sustainable.

The IEA expected a steep decline in demand for oil by 2030, from 90 million barrels of oil a day to 24 million barrels, and acceleration of investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, together with electrification of transport, industry and heating, in order to reach Net Zero by 2050.


Even now, however, the IEA provides no clear guidance on how fossil-fuel companies are to be persuaded to accept such a decline (World Energy Outlook, 2022).

The situation looks hopeless but actually the way forward is clear. Citizens everywhere must call for their governments to mandate the necessary changes in the fossil-fuel industry, ceasing all new fossil-fuel development and making clear proposals to phase out existing production.

Transitions in all sectors need to be planned on clear timescales up to 2030 and beyond, with appropriate regulation for industry, transport, buildings, agriculture and land use, with an emphasis on energy efficiency, decarbonisation, electrification and carbon sequestration.

As Christian Breyer and his colleagues have shown, it is practically possible to achieve 100 per cent Renewable Energy Systems in Europe by 2040.

This Author

Peter Somerville is emeritus professor of social policy at the University of Lincoln.


McGuire, B. (2022) Hothouse Earth: An inhabitant’s guide. London: Icon Books.

Grasso, M. (2022) From Big Oil to Big Green: Holding the oil industry to account for the climate crisis. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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