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Fossil Fuel Withdrawal Symptoms

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at the hard road to quitting fossil fuels.
Julian Moore
Oct 2, 2023 9 min read
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If you look at the failure to address the climate crisis as an addiction to fossil fuels, then this week was the final phase of the addiction cycle: relapse.

After months of solid progress in renewable energy growth, flattening emissions and ever-increasing funding for solutions, some of the world’s corporate and political leaders began to grapple with just how hard leaving fossil fuels behind will really be— and they’ve started backsliding on commitments.

Now that manufacturers and policymakers are giving decarbonization an honest effort, it turns out our addiction has lasted for so long because there are a whole lot of things we simply don’t know how to make without fossil fuels.

That was the message that at least seven countries sent to EU legislators who voted to delay a ban on fossil fuel powered cars to 2035. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen sounded resolute in 2021 when she announced the Fit for 55 plan that included the tough deadline for internal combustion engine cars in Europe. But having given a college try at electrifying all cars, it looks like Europe’s relationship with fossil fuels will drag on a little longer.

It echoed an even clearer message sent by Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr, who last week said that switching to sustainable air fuels would require no less than half of Germany’s electricity supply to power their fleet.

Quitting isn’t easy, but it’s also the only alternative to an emerging world without Antarctic ice. Here are more stories about the hard road to decarbonization from this week.

Lego Woes

One definition of addiction is not being able to quit a harmful behavior even when you want to.

That might be a fair characterization of Lego’s relationship with petroleum products, after the Danish toy maker announced this week that it was abandoning research into a highly anticipated low-carbon substitute for its signature plastic bricks.

Two years ago, the world’s largest toy maker said it was testing an alternative to the petroleum-based ABS plastic that goes into 80% of its products. The hope was that using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) would reduce the company’s carbon footprint and create a more circular production process.  

But Lego CEO Niels Christiansen said that after conducting a thorough life cycle analysis, the company realized retooling their factories with the machinery necessary to mass produce RPET would ultimately emit more carbon than sticking with the current formula. The RPET trials also yielded a toy brick with less “clutch power” that would likely disappoint customers and reinforce an association between sustainability and a lesser product.

To Lego’s credit, the company has put its best foot forward to decarbonize its production chain. Unlike many corporate net zero plans, which tend to be light on engineering solutions and heavy on carbon credits, Lego says it has tested hundreds of materials to make good on its pledge to move away from oil-based polyethylene plastics by 2030.

And Lego’s overall sustainability efforts haven’t been for nothing. The company says it is still on track to meet a 2025 goal to eliminate single use plastic from its packaging, and that, undaunted by the RPET setback, it would triple its investment to develop low-carbon plastics.

The setback points to how the list of “hard-to-decarbonize” industries continues to expand as manufacturers confront the difficulties of reducing their impact.

Lego got off to a hot start in 2018 when it replaced polyethylene with a plant-based substitute for 20 if its non-stackable pieces. Those proved to be the only silver bullets in Lego’s arsenal against carbon emissions. Going forward, the company expects to take it day by day and get off oil gradually, at least until their research yields another breakthrough.

UK Emissions Targets

The United Kingdom is also going back to fossil fuels as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would push back a 2030 ban on gas and diesel-powered cars to 2035.

Prime Minister Sunak’s argument rests on two familiar points: that the UK has already done its part in reducing emissions, and that reducing them further would be too expensive to force upon average Britons.

As Akshat Rathi pointed out in Bloomberg Green, the first argument sounds true until you put it into the context of the last ten years. The Conservative Party has governed the UK since 2010, and has met or exceeded each of its annual emissions targets since then.

But those targets were set in the 2008 Climate Change Act, years before the cost of solar power plummeted and became competitive with fossil fuels. That meant that early targets were probably too low and relatively easy to meet, as coal gave way to wind power without significant disruption to supply or increased electricity prices.

The next step in emissions reductions will be harder, and will put more of the onus on consumers to reduce household power consumption and increasingly adopt electric vehicles.

Sunak’s second argument is a classic refrain of climate delayism, and suggests that British politicians are picking up another nasty habit of the fossil fuel era: politicizing climate change ahead of a close election.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office posted a graphic on X listing the cumbersome, government-mandated climate measures his government would reverse. The problem is that the post appeared to list at least two climate policies that never existed.

Neither meat taxes nor bans on flying were ever real policy proposals, suggesting that the Prime Minister trumped up the measures for PR purposes.

They are, however, both good ideas, and were recommended by Climate Change Committee, an independent public body that advises the UK government on meeting emissions targets, but that lacks any regulatory power.

Whatever the justification for avoiding it, decarbonization’s central problem is that no matter how hard it is, it won’t be worse than a 4-degree planet. Until that sinks in among world leaders we may see more wishful thinking take the place of thoughtful policy.

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The Author

Julian Moore