Joan Martinez Alier, Guest Blogger
In May 2013, the international press has become alive to the fact thatthere is a lot of unburnable fossil fuels. “Unburnable” carbon hasbecome a buzz word in The Economist and in The New York Times. If theoil, gas and coal reserves are burnt at present speed, there is nochance whatever of limiting carbon dioxide concentration below 500 ppm.A large part of such reserves must remain in the ground. The GranthamInstitute of the London School of Economics has produced a report thatproves that the policies advanced since 1997 by Oilwatch to leave oil inthe soil were right, and announces that the money value of fossil fuelsreserves will necessarily come down if something is effectively doneagainst climate change. The Economist (4 May 2013, “Unburnable Fuels”)dismisses “technological fixes” such as carbon sequestration and geo-engineering.
When Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and Nobel laureate, publishedthe first articles on climate change in 1896, the carbon dioxideconcentration in the atmosphere was 300 parts per million (ppm). It isnow reaching 400 ppm and rising 2 ppm per year. Arrhenius announced thatby burning coal found underground, industrialised countries werereleasing more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that thiswould increase temperatures. He could not know that in the twentiethcentury coal burning worldwide would increase seven-fold or that inaddition to coal burning would be added much more oil and natural gas;in addition to the effects of deforestation.
What happens is that the new vegetation and the oceans do not absorb allthe carbon dioxide produced by the human economy. Fossil fuels can belikened to bottled photosynthesis from millions of years ago. We extractthem, “uncork” them, and burn them far too quickly. The enhancedgreenhouse effect (so-called by Arrhenius) will be faster and faster.
In this sense the proposal to leave some of the oil, coal and gasunderground is clearly reasonable. We must halve the rate of fossil fuelextraction. This proposal comes from places where the extraction of oil,coal or gas is doing great harm; for example, the Amazon of Ecuador andPeru, or the Niger Delta. In Mexico, oil has caused much environmentaldamage in Tabasco and Campeche, and in 2010 BP caused a major spill inthe Gulf of Mexico. But there are also disasters caused by coal miningin Colombia, China and India and from the extraction of tar sands in Canada.
In Ecuador, in the middle of the world, the organisation AcciónEcológica proposed in 2006 to leave in the ground 850 million barrels ofoil from the ITT (Ishpingo, Tiputini Tambococha) wells located in theYasuní National Park, on the border with Peru. The proposal was acceptedby the then Minister of Energy and Mines, Alberto Acosta, and alsoreluctantly endorsed by President Rafael Correa. However, a clause wasadded. Ecuador would make a financial sacrifice for its own good andthat of humanity, and would forego the extraction of oil, which if burntwould produce 410 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, thereby conservingthe unique local biodiversity, and respecting indigenous rights.
The country requested foreign contribution equivalent to about half ofthe money that would have been earned, some US$ 3.6 billion in total,paid over a period of ten or twelve years. These contributions would bedeposited in a trust fund jointly administered with the UNDP, and formedon 3rd August 2010. The offer is in place, the money is arriving slowly,but President Correa threatens a Plan B for oil extraction in some ofthe protected wells. Correa is not an environmentalist but has defendedthe Yasuní proposal in international forums. But now he threatens topush the limits of Yasuní National Park in June 2013.
The idea of leaving the oil underground was born in the Niger Delta.Some speak of “ogonizar” rather than “yasunizar” because after 1995 andthe death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni managed to expel Shell for manyyears. There they say, “leave oil in the soil”. From elsewhere: “leavecoal in the hole”, “leave gas under the grass”, launching proposalssimilar to that of Ecuador. So much so that Acción Ecológica wrote tothe Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in order to put the word”yasunizar” in the dictionary.
In Guatemala, the proposal has been made not to extract oil from theLaguna del Tigre, a Ramsar site in the Petén (an internationally listedwetland). On the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia (nearto the coast of Nicaragua), the decision has been officially made toleave the oil underground in accordance with local protests. In thedistant New Zealand, those who oppose the brutal open-pit mining oflignite know the word “yasunizar.” The same is true in Quebec, France,Bulgaria, and in the Basque Country, where, for the time being, shalegas extraction which can harm the water table, has been stopped, withthe argument that if the Yasuní ITT oil stays in the ground, why canother places not follow this same doctrine? Even in the Lofoten Islandsin Norway, it is being proposed to leave the oil and gas under the seabed.
There are local and global reasons for yasunizing the world.
Joan Martinez Alier is a convenor of the Environmental JusticeOrganisations, Liabilities and Trade project based at the AutonomousUniversity of Barcelona