Joan Martinez Alier, Guest Blogger
In May 2013, the international press has become alive to the fact that
there is a lot of unburnable fossil fuels. “Unburnable” carbon has
become a buzz word in The Economist and in The New York Times. If the
oil, gas and coal reserves are burnt at present speed, there is no
chance whatever of limiting carbon dioxide concentration below 500 ppm.
A large part of such reserves must remain in the ground. The Grantham
Institute of the London School of Economics has produced a report that
proves that the policies advanced since 1997 by Oilwatch to leave oil in
the soil were right, and announces that the money value of fossil fuels
reserves will necessarily come down if something is effectively done
against climate change. The Economist (4 May 2013, “Unburnable Fuels”)
dismisses “technological fixes” such as carbon sequestration and
When Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and Nobel laureate, published
the first articles on climate change in 1896, the carbon dioxide
concentration in the atmosphere was 300 parts per million (ppm). It is
now reaching 400 ppm and rising 2 ppm per year. Arrhenius announced that
by burning coal found underground, industrialised countries were
releasing more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that this
would increase temperatures. He could not know that in the twentieth
century coal burning worldwide would increase seven-fold or that in
addition 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 all
the carbon dioxide produced by the human economy. Fossil fuels can be
likened to bottled photosynthesis from millions of years ago. We extract
them, “uncork” them, and burn them far too quickly. The enhanced
greenhouse effect (so-called by Arrhenius) will be faster and faster.
In this sense the proposal to leave some of the oil, coal and gas
underground is clearly reasonable. We must halve the rate of fossil fuel
extraction. This proposal comes from places where the extraction of oil,
coal or gas is doing great harm; for example, the Amazon of Ecuador and
Peru, or the Niger Delta. In Mexico, oil has caused much environmental
damage in Tabasco and Campeche, and in 2010 BP caused a major spill in
the Gulf of Mexico. But there are also disasters caused by coal mining
in Colombia, China and India and from the extraction of tar sands in Canada.
In Ecuador, in the middle of the world, the organisation Acción
Ecológica proposed in 2006 to leave in the ground 850 million barrels of
oil from the ITT (Ishpingo, Tiputini Tambococha) wells located in the
Yasuní National Park, on the border with Peru. The proposal was accepted
by the then Minister of Energy and Mines, Alberto Acosta, and also
reluctantly endorsed by President Rafael Correa. However, a clause was
added. Ecuador would make a financial sacrifice for its own good and
that of humanity, and would forego the extraction of oil, which if burnt
would produce 410 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, thereby conserving
the unique local biodiversity, and respecting indigenous rights.
The country requested foreign contribution equivalent to about half of
the 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 be
deposited in a trust fund jointly administered with the UNDP, and formed
on 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 of
the protected wells. Correa is not an environmentalist but has defended
the Yasuní proposal in international forums. But now he threatens to
push 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 and
the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni managed to expel Shell for many
years. There they say, “leave oil in the soil”. From elsewhere: “leave
coal in the hole”, “leave gas under the grass”, launching proposals
similar to that of Ecuador. So much so that Acción Ecológica wrote to
the 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 the
Laguna del Tigre, a Ramsar site in the Petén (an internationally listed
wetland). On the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia (near
to the coast of Nicaragua), the decision has been officially made to
leave the oil underground in accordance with local protests. In the
distant New Zealand, those who oppose the brutal open-pit mining of
lignite know the word “yasunizar.” The same is true in Quebec, France,
Bulgaria, and in the Basque Country, where, for the time being, shale
gas extraction which can harm the water table, has been stopped, with
the argument that if the Yasuní ITT oil stays in the ground, why can
other places not follow this same doctrine? Even in the Lofoten Islands
in 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 Justice
Organisations, Liabilities and Trade project based at the Autonomous
University of Barcelona