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International Climate Action Must Include Limits on Fossil Fuel Supply

Constraints on fossil fuel supplies are needed alongside effort to reduce demand if the countries that participated in COP 24 earlier this month hope to gain control of the climate crisis, geographers Philippe Le Billon of the University of British Columbia and Berit Kristoffersen of Arctic University of Norway write for Policy Options.

Efforts to reduce demand for fossil fuels are helping, but it is now quite clear that demand-side actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not enough,” Le Billon and Kristoffersen noted last week, as negotiations in Katowice, Poland reached a crescendo. “Increasing carbon taxation on consumers has been relatively effective, but carbon taxes are facing increasing political resistance and can lead to a major backlash, as we are seeing with France’s current fuel riots. While the shift to renewable energy is gaining momentum, it is too slow. Per capita demand for energy has also been on the decline in the U.S. and many European countries for the past decade, but major new energy consumers such as China and India will take time to follow suit. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently pointed out, the current transition is still too slow to meet climate change targets.”

Difficult as the solution might be for governments that depend on fossil fuel revenues, they say, “the energy transition needs to be managed not only from the demand side, but also through supply-side measures” that “seek to proactively constrain the production, transportation, or transformation of fossil fuels. Such measures include government-led initiatives such as moratoriums, and tradable production quotas.

So far, Le Billon and Kristoffersen write, the supply-side measures adopted across 106 countries have had only a modest impact. “Things could change, however. Many producer countries already seek to diversify their economies away from fossil fuel export dependence to avoid ‘resource curse’ effects such as volatile revenues and higher risk of violent conflicts. Saudi Arabia has already signalled its interest to reduce fossil fuel export dependence. In ‘best practice’ petro-states such as Norway, public opinion is shifting toward voluntarily leaving oil in the ground for climate reasons,” while Alberta recently mandated temporary production cuts and many U.S. cities and states have taken a variety of steps to limit fossil extraction.

But making the supply constraints work will depend on a just transition for fossil workers and communities, and on “preventing a shift in production and revenues away from countries that voluntarily cut their production over to ‘free-riding’ countries that are not taking any action,” they note. “Most countries will balk at the idea of cutting their production if their market share is taken over by other producers with more carbon-heavy fuel deposits and dismal environmental records.”

They say the transition will ultimately depend on a “broad societal consensus” on how and where fossil curtailment should take place, beginning with “high-income countries that have low fossil fuel dependence, diversified economies, and a fossil fuel work force that can move to other sectors (including renewables).” The post cites Australia, Canada, Norway, and the UK—followed by the United States, the European Union, and wealthy East Asian countries—as jurisdictions where early supply cuts “should serve as a powerful signal of a supply-driven transition.”