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Why Overfishing is killing our oceans and what we can do about it

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“An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient.”

By Coty Perry, Courtesy of  Your Bass Guy

The man-made problems with the ocean like acidification, plastic pollution, and overfishing have never been more serious — we’re killing our oceans and we know it.

To sum it up, I think governments aren’t doing enough to help and they’re actually contributing to overfishing through their subsidies that usually end up in the hands of big commercial fishing companies – not the small fishermen they’re meant for. I believe that technological solutions (such as Fishtek Marine) and the use of territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF) will have a bigger impact on our oceans than our governments can and I go into detail on all this and more in my article.

Overfishing, Conservation, Sustainability, and Farmed Fish

Overfishing, Conservation, Sustainability, and Farmed Fish

As with many other aspects of government policy, overfishing and other fishing-related environmental issues are a real problem, but it’s not clear that government intervention is the solution. Indeed, it might be one of the main drivers of overfishing and other conservation and sustainability issues stemming from commercial fishing. Much like drone fishing, there are serious ethical issues of interest to the average angler.

There’s another commonality that overfishing has with environmental issues more broadly: The Western companies primarily concerned with serious efforts to curb overfishing are not the ones who are most guilty of overfishing. What this means is that the costs of overfishing are disproportionately borne by the countries least engaged in practices that are counter to efforts to make commercial fishing more sustainable while also promoting conservation of fish biodiversity.

All of these are important issues not just for commercial fishermen, but also those interested in questions of conservation and sustainability in general, as well as recreational fisherman and basically anyone who uses fish as a food source. As the ocean goes, so goes the planet, so it is of paramount importance for everyone to educate themselves on what is driving overfishing, what its consequences are, and what meaningful steps — not simply theater to feel as if “something is being done” — can be taken.

Overfishing infographic - "> 3 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein"

Indeed, over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12 percent of the world relies on fisheries in some form or another. 90 percent of these being small-scale fishermen — “think a small crew in a boat, not a ship,” using small nets or even rods, reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use.

There are 18.9 million fishermen in the world, with 90 percent of them falling under the same small-scale fisherman rubric discussed above.

Overfishing infographic - "90% fisheries small-scale fishermen, 12% world population relies upon fisheries"

Content

Overfishing Definition: What is Overfishing?

Overfished ocean

First, take heart: As a recreational fisherman you are almost certainly not guilty of “overfishing.” This is an issue for commercial fishermen in the fishing industry who are trawling the ocean depths with massive nets to catch enough fish to make a living for themselves and their families, not the angler who enjoys a little peace and quiet on the weekends.

Overfishing is, in some sense, a rational reaction to increasing market needs for fish. Most people consume approximately twice as much fish as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30 percent of commercially fished waters being classified as “overfished.” This means that the stock of available fishing waters are being depleted faster than they can be replaced.

There is a simple and straightforward definition of when an area is being “overfished” and it’s not simply about catching “too many” fish. Overfishing occurs when the breeding stock of an area becomes so depleted that the fish in the area cannot replenish themselves.

Overfishing infographic "> 80% fish caught in nets"

At best, this means fewer fish next year than there are this year. At worst, it means that a species of fish cannot be fished out of a specific area anymore. This also goes hand-in-hand with wasteful forms of fishing that harvest not just the fish the trawler is looking for, but just about every other organism big enough to be caught in a net. Over 80 percent of fish are caught in these kinds of nets but fish aren’t the only things caught in nets.

What’s more, there are a number of wide-reaching consequences of overfishing. It’s not simply bad because it depletes the fish stocks of available resources, though that certainly is one reason why it’s bad. Others include:

  • Increased Algae in the Water: Like many other things, algae is great but too much of it is very bad. When there are fewer fish in the water, algae doesn’t get eaten. This increases the acidity in the world’s oceans, which negatively impacts not only the remaining fish, but also the reefs and plankton.
  • Destruction of Fishing Communities: Overfishing can completely destroy fish populations and communities that once relied upon the fish that were there. This is particularly true for island communities. And it’s worth remembering that there are many isolated points on the globe where fishing isn’t just the driver of the economy, but also the primary source of protein for the population. When either or both of these disappear, the community disappears along with it.
  • Tougher Fishing for Small Vessels: If you’re a fan of small business, you ought to be concerned about overfishing. That’s because overfishing is mostly done by large vessels and makes it harder for smaller ones to meet their quotas. With over 40 million people around the world getting their food and livelihood from fishing, this is a serious problem.
  • Ghost Fishing: Ghost fishing refers to abandoned man-made fishing gear that is left behind. It’s believed that an estimated 25,000 nets float throughout the Northeast Atlantic. This left behind gear becomes a death trap for all marine life that swim through that area. While much of this is caused due to storms and natural disasters, much of it is the result of ignorance and neglect on behalf of commercial fishermen.
  • Species Pushed to Near Extinction: When we hear that a fish species is being depleted, we often think it’s fine because they can be found somewhere else. However, many species of fish are being pushed close to extinction by overfishing, such as several species of cod, tuna, halibut and even lobster.
  • Bycatch: If you’re old enough to remember people being concerned about dolphins caught in tuna nets, you know what bycatch is: It’s when marine life that is not being sought by commercial fishermen is caught in their nets as a byproduct. The possibility of bycatch increases dramatically with overfishing.
Overfishing infographics "20% fish in the USA lost in the supply chain"
  • Waste: Overfishing creates waste in the supply chain. Approximately 20 percent of all fish in the United States is lost in the supply chain due to overfishing. In the Third World this rises to 30 percent thanks to a lack of available freezing devices. What this means is that even though there are more fish being caught than ever, there is also massive waste of harvested fish.
  • Mystery Fish: Because of overfishing, there are a significant amount of fish at your local fish market and on the shelves of your local grocery store that aren’t what they are labelled as. Just because something says that it’s cod doesn’t mean that it actually is. To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, only 13 percent of the “red snapper” on the market is actually red snapper. Most of this is unintentional due to the scale of fishing done today, but much of it is not, hiding behind the unfortunate realities of mass scale fishing to pass off inferior products to unwitting customers.
Overfishing infographic - "fish in the Third World lost in the supply chain..."

So why is overfishing happening? There are a variety of factors driving overfishing that we will delve into here, the bird’s eye view is below.

  • Regulation: Regulations are incredibly difficult to enforce even when they are carefully crafted, which they often are not. The worst offenders have little regulations in place and none of these regulations apply in international waters, which are effectively a Wild West.
  • Unreported Fishing: Existing regulations force many fisherman to do their fishing “off the books” if they wish to turn a profit. This is especially true in developing nations.
  • Mobile Processing: Mobile processing is when fish are processed before even returning to port. They are canned while still out at sea. Canned fish is increasingly taking up the fish consumption market at the expense of fresh fish.
  • Subsidies: Anyone familiar with farm subsidies knows that these are actually bad for the production of healthy food. Subsidies for fishing are similar. They don’t generally go to small fisherman whom one would think are most in need, but rather to massive vessels doing fuel-intensive shipping.

What’s more, subsidies encourage overfishing because the money keeps flowing no matter what — the more fish you catch, the more money you get, with no caps influenced by environmental impact fishing regulation.

Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Fund, subsidies drive illegal fishing, which is closely tied with piracy, slavery and human trafficking. The University of British Columbia conducted a study that found that $22 billion (63 percent of all fishing subsidies) went toward subsidies that encourage overfishing.

Of these, the main driver of overfishing is, predictably, government subsidies. So it is worth taking a few minutes to separate that out from the rest of these issues and give it some special attention.

More on Overfishing and Government Subsidies

Overfishing - "Fishing boats on the water with asian writing on the sides"

The subsidies that drive overfishing are highly lucrative: The governments of the world are giving away over $35 billion every year to fishermen. That’s about 20 percent of the value of all the commercially caught fish in the world every year. Subsidies are often directed at reducing the costs for megafishing companies — things like paying for their massive fuel budgets, the gear they need to catch fish, or even the vessels themselves.

This effectively allows for large commercial fishing operations to take over the market or recapitalize at rates significantly below that of the market, disproportionately favoring them over their smaller competitors.

It is this advantage that drives large mega fishing companies into unsustainable fishing practices. The end result of this is not just depleted stocks, but also lower yields due to long-term overfishing, as well as lowered costs of fish at market, which has some advantages for the consumer, but also makes it significantly harder for smaller operations to turn a profit.

Such government subsidies could provide assistance to smaller fishermen, but are generally structured in a way that favors consolidation of the market and efforts counterproductive to conservation efforts.

What Role Do Farmed Fish Play?

Farmed fish

Farmed fish is a phenomenon that we take for granted today, but is actually a revolutionary method of bringing fish out of the water and onto our dinner tables. Originally, it was seen as a way of preserving the population of wild fish. The thinking was this: We could eat fish from fish farming while the wild stock replenished itself.

At the same time, communities impacted by overfishing would find new ways to get income in an increasingly difficult market. Third world countries would have their protein needs met in a manner that did not negatively impact the environment. It was considered a big, easy win for the entire world.

The reality, as is often the case, turned out to be a little different. Crowding thousands of fish together in small areas away from their natural habitat turns out to have a number of detrimental effects. Waste products, primarily fish poop, excess food and dead fish, begin to contaminate the areas around fish farms. What’s more, like other factory farms, fish farms require lots of pesticides and drugs thanks to the high concentrations of fish and the parasites and diseases that spread in these kinds of areas.

Predictably, the chemicals used in making farmed fish possible are not contained in the areas where they are initially used. They spread into the surrounding waters and then simply become part of the water of the world, building up over time. In many cases, farmed fish are farmed in areas that are already heavily polluted. This is where the admonition to avoid eating too much fish for fear of contaminants like mercury has come from.

Overfishing infographic - "seafood globally is feed for farmed fish"

What’s more, the fish that we eat are not the only fish that are living at the fisheries. Often times, the preferred fish of the human consumer are carnivores that must eat lots of other fish to get up to an appropriate size to be part of the market. These fish, known as “reduction fish” or “trash fish” require the same kind of treatment that the larger fish they feed do.

All told, it takes 26 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of tuna, making farmed fishing an incredibly inefficient way of bringing food to market. Indeed, 37 percent of all seafood globally is now fed for farmed fish, up dramatically from 7.7 percent in 1948.

Overfishing infographic "26 pounds of feed = 1 pound of tuna"

Perhaps worst of all, farmed fish simply do not have the same nutritional value as their wild counterparts, losing almost all of the Omega-3 fatty acids that make fish such a prized part of the modern diet.

Salmon, for example, is only healthy when it is caught in the wild. Farmed salmon is essentially a form of junk food. This is in large part due to the diet that the fish eat in fish farms, which is high in fat and uses soy as a primary source of protein. Toxins at the farms concentrate in the fatty tissue of the salmon. Concentrations of the harmful chemical PCB are found in concentrations eight times higher in farmed fish than traditionally caught wild salmon.

The pesticides, of course, are not used for no reason, but because of the proliferation of pests due to the high concentrations of fish in the fisheries. Sea lice are one example of such pests, which can eat a live salmon down to the bone.

These pests do not stay in the fisheries, but quickly spread to the surrounding waters and infect wild salmon as well as their farmed counterparts. The pests aren’t the only ones escaping: Farmed fish often escape from their habitats and compete with the native fish for resources, becoming an invasive species.

Subsidies vary from one country to another and specific statistics about how much goes to fish farms is generally not forthcoming. But fish farms effectively move the problem of overfishing from the wild oceans and into more enclosed areas. This does not solve any of the problems of overfishing. It merely creates new ones with no less impact on the environment.

Which Countries Are Overfishing?

Countries that are overfishing

As stated above, the main offenders with regard to overfishing tend to not be developed Western countries, but countries from the undeveloped world and parts of Asia. Sadly, the United States is the only Western nation that appeared on a “shame list” put out by Pew Charitable Trusts. This is known as the Pacific Six. The other members include Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Indonesia.

Overfishing infographic - "80% world's bluefin tuna"

The list only refers to overfishing with regard to bluefin tuna, but it provides a snapshot of the face of overfishing internationally. Overfishing facts say that these six countries are fishing 80 percent of the world’s bluefin tuna. These countries took collectively 111,482 metric tons of bluefin tuna out of the waters in 2011 alone.

However, when it comes to harmful subsidies there is a clear leader: China. A University of British Columbia study found that China provided more in the way of harmful subsidies encouraging overfishing than any other country on earth — $7.2 billion in 2018 or 21 percent of all global support. What’s more, subsidies that are more beneficial than harmful dropped by 73 percent.

Overfishing infographic " 111,482 tons of bluefin tuna in 2011"

The negative effects of overfishing are not taking place far away and in very abstract ways. They are causing communities right here in the United States to collapse. In the early 1990s, overfishing of cod caused entire communities in New England to collapse. Once this happens, it is very difficult to reverse. The effects are felt by the marine ecosystem but also by the people whose livelihoods depend on fishing.

Another example of economic instability is the Japanese fish market. Japanese fishermen are able to catch far less fish than they used to, meaning that the Japanese are now eating more imported fish, often from the United States, than ever before. This creates a perverse situation where America exports most of its best salmon to other countries, but consumes some of the worst farmed salmon in the world today.

Just How Bad Is Overfishing?

Surely overfishing can’t be that bad, right? The seas are just filled with tons of fish and it would take us forever to overfish to the point that they began to disappear entirely, right?

Fish on dry land

Think again. Overfishing is happening at biologically unsustainable levels. Pacific bluefin tuna, the type of fish discussed in the section above, has seen a 97 percent decline in overall population. This is important because the Pacific bluefin tuna is one of the most important predators in the ocean food chain. If it goes extinct the entire aquaculture will be irreparably disturbed.

The first fish that disappear from an ecosystem are larger fish with a longer lifespan and reach reproductive age later in life. These are also the most desirable fish on the open market. When these fish disappear, the destructive fishing operations do not leave the area: They simply move down the food chain to less desirable catches like squid and sardines. This is called “fishing down the web” and it slowly destroys the entire ecosystem removing first the predator fish and then the prey.

There are broader effects on the ecosystem beyond just the fish, effects that resonate throughout the entire Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Many of the smaller fish eat algae that grows on coral reefs. When these fish become overfished, the algae grows uncontrolled and the reefs suffer as a result. That deprives many marine life forms of their natural habitat, creating extreme disruption in the ocean ecosystem.

What Are Some Alternatives to Government-Driven Overfishing?

Protecting fish

While there are certainly policy solutions to rampant overfishing, not all solutions will come from government. For example, there are emerging technological solutions that will make bycatching and other forms of waste less prevalent and harmful.

Simple innovations based on existing technologies, such as Fishtek Marine seek to save sea mammals from the nets of commercial fishermen while also increasing profit margins for these companies in a win-win scenario. Their device is small and inexpensive and thus does not present an undue burden to either the large-scale commercial fishing vessels or small fishermen looking to eke out a living in an increasingly difficult market.

We must also recognize that current regulations simply do not work. In one extreme case, governments restricted fishing for certain forms of tuna for three days a year. This did absolutely nothing for the population of tuna, as the big commercial fishing companies simply employed methods to harvest as many fish in three days as they were previously getting in any entire year.

This, in turn, led to a greater amount of bycatch and waste. Because the fishing operations didn’t have the luxury of time to ensure that they were only catching what they sought to catch, their truncated fishing season prized quantity over quality with predictable results.

Quotas, specifically the “individual transferable quota” scheme used by New Zealand and many other countries does not seem to work as intended for a number of reasons. First, these quotas are, as the name might suggest, transferable. This means that little fishermen might consider it a better deal to simply sell their quota to a large commercial fishing operation rather than go to work for themselves and we’re back to square one.

More generally speaking, quotas seem to be a source of waste. Here’s how they work: A fishing operation is given a specific tonnage of fish from a specific species that they can catch. However, not all fish are created equally. So when commercial fishing operations look at their catch and see that some of it is of higher quality than others, they discard the lower-quality fish in favor of higher-quality fish creating large amounts of waste. These discards can sometimes make up 40 percent of the catch.

An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient.

One such alternative is called territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF). In this case, individual fishermen or collectives of them are provided with long-term rights to fish in a specific area. This means that they have skin in the game. They don’t want to overfish the area because to do so would be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. So they catch as many fish as is sustainable and no more. They have a vested, long-term interest in making sure that there is no overfishing in the fisheries that have been allotted to them.

Not only does this make sustainable fishing more attractive, it also means that there is less government bureaucracy and red tape involved. Fishermen with TURF are allowed to catch as much as they like. It is assumed that sustainability is baked into the equation because the fishermen with rights want to preserve the fishing not just for the next year, but for the next generation and the one after that. This model has been used successfully by Chile, one of the most economically free countries in the world (more economically free, in fact, than the United States), to prevent overfishing and create sustainability. It is a market-driven model that prizes small producers with skin in the game over massive, transnational conglomerates with none.

Belize, Denmark and even the United States are other countries who have used TURF, with significantly positive results.

While it’s nice to support the little guy over Big Fishing and we certainly support sustainability and conservation efforts, there’s another, perhaps more important and direct reason to support reforms designed to eliminate overfishing: food security. When bluefin tuna, for example, goes extinct, it’s not coming back. That means no more cans of tuna on the shelves of your local supermarket.

That’s a big deal for people in developed, first world countries, but a much bigger deal in developing countries. When major protein sources are depleted forever, there will be intensified competition for the resources that remain. This also creates unrest in the countries that are less able to compete in a global market due to issues of capital and scale. Even if you’re not concerned with overfishing, overfishing and the problems it creates will soon be on your doorstep unless corrective measures are taken before it’s too late.

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Systemic Change Driven by Moral Awakening Is Our Only Hope

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Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity.

The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: If climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”). Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: Once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines can’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.

Source: EcoWatch

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Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy finds that existing coal, oil and gas production puts the world on course to overshoot Paris climate targets.

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Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy finds that existing coal, oil and gas production puts the world on course to overshoot Paris climate targets. The report analyses global renewable energy potential, and finds that every region on Earth can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy to keep warming below 1.5ºC and provide reliable energy access to all.

The world already has more than enough renewable energy potential to comfortably make the transition away from fossil fuels while also expanding energy access for all, finds new analysis by Dr Sven Teske and Dr Sarah Niklas from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney.

Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy shows clearly through detailed modelling that, even if no new fossil fuel projects were built from today onwards, carbon emissions from existing projects are still far too high to stay on course towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Modelling in the report demonstrates the world would produce significantly more fossil fuels than it can afford under a 1.5ºC climate goal by 2030, leading to 66% more emissions in 2030 than is compatible with 1.5ºC. Therefore, the world needs to actively wind down existing coal mines and oil and gas wells while increasing renewable energy.

The report shows that this transition is not only required but completely feasible. The world simply doesn’t need any more fossil fuels. In fact, all regions have enough renewable energy to provide energy access to all using existing technologies.

This suggests that it is possible to meet the twin challenges of phasing out fossil fuels and increasing electricity access at the speed required through scaling up renewable energy, according to Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy: An orderly wind down of coal, oil and gas to meet the Paris Agreement.

This report comes shortly after the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap that states clearly the world needs to stop investing in and expanding fossil fuels. The Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy report goes further by finding that it is also necessary to begin phasing down existing coal mines and oil and gas wells to have a chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Rebecca Byrnes, Deputy Director for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, said: “This report shows that a practical pathway exists where there are no new fossil fuel projects, existing projects are phased out, emissions are kept within a 1.5°C budget and energy access becomes universal, all while using existing and increasingly cost-competitive technologies. The hurdle is no longer economic nor technical; our biggest challenges are political. A cleaner future is within reach and, while international cooperation is essential for innovation and investment, nation-states can and should act now to regulate fossil fuel production decline”

The report, which builds on existing research on fossil fuel overproduction and renewable energy potential, analyzes fossil fuel phase out pathways that will be necessary to remain within a 1.5°C trajectory and compares this to a feasible scale up pathway for renewable energy. It does this while excluding technologies that are uncertain or require unreasonable amounts of land use, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), unlike scenarios provided by the IPCC and IEA .

Associate Professor Sven Teske, Research Director at the University of Technology Sydney: “National governments must establish binding limits for the extraction volumes for coal, oil and gas. A just transition for workers from the fossil to the renewable energy industry is essential. Any new investments in coal, oil and gas projects are not in line with the Paris agreement and would most likely be stranded due to favourable economics for renewables – especially solar and wind. The combination of renewable energies, storage technologies and renewable fuels such as hydrogen and synthetic fuels will provide reliable energy supply for industries, future travelling as well as for buildings. The fossil energy industry must be wound down.”

Tzeporah Berman, International Program Director at Stand.Earth and Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative: “This new report shows clearly that we have more than enough fossil fuels above ground and under production and that we have the technology and renewable energy capacity to more than meet the world’s energy needs. Fast tracking a wind down of oil, gas and coal and focusing on expanding renewable production and infrastructure is not only possible, but it will save lives.”

Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia: “There are no more excuses to further delay accelerated uptake of renewable energy and ending the age of fossil fuels. At a time when renewable energy has emerged as a reliable and cost effective alternative, to continue to expand the fossil fuel sector is a criminal waste of money that will have devastating climate and humanitarian consequences, especially on the poorest of poor and most vulnerable people of the global South. G7 leaders must set an example and shut down coal plants in their countries immediately and assist the developing world in leapfrogging to renewable energy with technological and  financial assistance.”

Iman Bashir, Programme Assistant at Power Shift Africa says: “It is clear renewables provide an opportunity for Africa to not only power its future in a safe and sustainable manner, but also a chance to gain a strong footing as a global clean energy leader. The report provides irrefutable proof that Africa can power its economic development using renewable energy pathways and leapfrog the exploitation of fossil fuels through a combination of national policy and international support.”

Ilan Zugman, 350.org’s Director for Latin America says: “For oil, gas and coal companies, this conclusion will probably be unwelcome, but it makes no sense to ignore it. There is no time anymore. We need public policies that promote clean energy infrastructure and financing, as well as access for all. And this must not happen in parallel to the expansion of fossil fuels, but rather by replacing them. The era of fossil fuels must end now so that the future is in the hands of humanity and not in the hands of this industry.”

Frode Pleym, leader of Greenpeace Norway: “We’ve known for a long time that the world has found far more oil and gas than we can ever use. This report emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis. But it’s also encouraging to see it’s still possible to reach our climate commitments, without relying on risky and problematic technologies such as carbon capture and biofuels, if oil producing countries such as Norway start a just transition away from fossil fuels.”

Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Convener, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines & Fridays For Future Philippines: “My country has had the most number of extreme weather events for the past 20 years. I grew up with thunder and howling winds banging on my doors and windows. The current level of warming is already hell for us in the Global South. With all the destruction and devastation we have faced, expanding and supporting the dirty rotten fossil fuel industry when it will clearly put us past the 1.5°C limit is a death sentence to the most marginalized people. Global North countries have a historical debt to pay to the countries in the South that they have overexploited and that begins with an end to expansion of fossil fuel production, a phase down of existing production, and supporting renewable energy transition especially in the global south. With this report, it is even clearer to everyone that world leaders have no excuse. We must act now, the science and the people are united in calling for justice.”

Truls Gulowsen, chair of Friends of the Earth Norway: “Another expert report shows us that we have the technology required to phase out fossil fuels, and phase in cleaner, more efficient energy, without destroying enormous areas and worsening the parallel crisis of biodiversity loss. What we lack, as always, is political will, with Norway looking increasingly isolated globally in its seemingly unending faith in the continued profitability of petroleum. Norwegian politicians need to start telling the truth about the need for a just transition of the oil and gas industry; if not, we risk an unprecedented economic crash in addition to ever-worsening, more catastrophic climate change.”

The report’s main findings include:

  • Even if fossil fuel expansion ended overnight, too many fossil fuels are already under production in existing coal mines and oil and gas wells to remain within a 1.5°C budget.
  • To keep warming to below the temperature goal of 1.5ºC there must be both an end to expansion of fossil fuel production, and a phase down of existing production.
  • The world has more than enough renewable energy resources that can be scaled up rapidly enough to meet the energy demands of every person in the world.
  • The report shows that, by 2030, even without any new coal, oil or gas projects, the world would produce 35% more oil and 69% more coal than is consistent with a 1.5°C pathway.
  • Every continent in the world has enough renewable energy potential to provide 100% renewable energy access to its population.
  • As the cost of renewables has dropped, economic potential for renewables has grown alongside technical potential. Even when taking into account environmental safeguards, land constraints and technical feasibility, solar and wind energy could power the world more than 50 times over.
  • Continuing to expand the fossil fuel sector will only lock in further infrastructure that will become stranded assets, with devastating climate and humanitarian consequences.
  • The report was produced by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney and conducted in cooperation with the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. The full report is available below and a suite of report graphics, animations and charts can be downloaded here.

About the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative

The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative is spurring international cooperation to end new development of fossil fuels, phase out existing production within the agreed climate limit of 1.5°C and develop plans to support workers, communities and countries dependent on fossil fuels to create secure and healthy livelihoods. Cities such as Vancouver and Barcelona have already endorsed the Treaty with more considering motions to endorse. Hundreds of organizations representing thousands more individuals join the call for world leaders to stop fossil fuel expansion.

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