Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A failure of imagination leads us to more oil drilling

A few years ago, the Ecuadorian government’s Yasuni project was the talk of the town among climate change and anti-oil activists at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The idea was simple: there are large reserves of valuable oil underneath the incredibly biodiverse Yasuni national park in Ecuador. Normally, there would be a strong economic incentive for a poor country like Ecuador to push environmental concerns to the side and drill for the oil. However, Ecuador suggested that the international community could change the equation, by offering the country compensation for leaving the oil in the ground and the pristine wilderness untouched. If enough money was provided to make it worthwhile, Ecuador would be one of the first countries to simply refuse to extract the oil that they had.
This was actually a very good idea, which addressed one of the primary sticking points in the climate change negotiations – the issue of justice. Many of the rich nations that are now urging developing countries to cut their emissions are the same ones that have already used up more than their fair share of our common atmospheric space – in many cases, the only reason the rich countries are not drilling for their own oil is because they have already used it all up. The Yasuni project would address this issue by providing Ecuador with the economic incentive to do the right thing – allowing them to gain the benefits of drilling for oil, without the polluting negatives, and evening up the playing field between rich and poor nations a little. To their credit, Norway – a nation which became rich due to its own oil drilling – was the first rich nation to offer a contribution.
In the end, however, it has all proved too good to be true. Drilling in the Yasuni park is now scheduled to begin, despite protests from around the world and within Ecuadorian civil society. And in what is being seen by some as the ultimate betrayal of trust, it turns out that the Ecuadorian government was in discussions with Chinese oil companies about drilling, even while trying to promote the Yasuni project at the climate change talks.
But the betrayal and the failure here isn’t that of the Ecuadorian government – it is the failure of the international community and of the rich, developed nations that failed to help Ecuador protect its national park. Quite simply, the necessary money was not provided, and the economics of our capitalist world therefore put Ecuador in a position where drilling for oil is almost irresistible if the country wants to develop. In fact, by not providing the money, the rich nations have shown that Ecuador was right to be negotiating with those Chinese companies – this does not represent a lack of faith on the part of Ecuador, but rather shows that Ecuador did not trust other countries to help them. Evidently, they were right not to do so.
It’s time for rich nations to realize that if the world is going to switch its energy system away from a dependence on oil, then countries that have the most historical responsibility for fossil fuel use need to be at the forefront. Asking and expecting smaller nations with considerably fewer resources to do all the work is not going to succeed, and simply entrenches the global inequality that we already suffer from. We all need to commit to changing our habits and moving away from oil – but as a matter of justice and equality, rich nations need to go first. It’s time for them to stop dallying, and put their money where their mouth is.

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