Stranded Assets and Induced Implosion

by Ray Grigg

Times are changing for the fossil fuel industry — and not for the better. Words such as “stranded assets” and “induced implosion” are now being used by internationally important thinkers to describe the business prospects of these corporations.

Mark Carney, head of the Bank of England, in addressing an international gathering of insurance executives, noted in July that most of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves would never be used. “Stranded assets” is the term now used popularly to identify this realization. As a result, billions of dollars of investments are now fleeing fossil fuel industries, with $2.6 trillion of divestment scheduled for the coming year. In Carney’s summary of the situation, “The more we invest with foresight, the less we will regret in hindsight.”

Laurence Tubiana, France’s climate change ambassador, is clear that the transition away from fossil fuels is inevitable. He expects a “massive acceleration” of the green economy in the next five years.

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an advisor to the German government and the Vatican, has a more explicit prediction for the fossil fuel industry. “In order to stay below the 2°C [global warming limit set by international community], or even 3°C, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20–30 years. Otherwise we have no chance of avoiding dangerous, perhaps disastrous, climate change.” He added, in supporting divestment, “Do you want to be a part of the economy that is destroying the world, or part of an economy that protects creation?” In conclusion, he said, “The age of carbon is over.”

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel winning economist, echoes the same thinking regarding fossil fuel corporations. “A mixture of many different changes going on — consumption patterns, civil society, political action — will all be disruptive to the carbon economy.”

Meanwhile, when a representative of the giant American coal corporation, Peabody, described global warming as “an environmental crisis predicted by flawed computer models,” the dismissal sounds like an absurdly hollow gesture to slow the hemorrhaging of investments.

Tim Flannery, the former head of the Australia Climate Commission and author two important books, The Weather Makers and Atmosphere of Hope, notes that our present trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions will get us to a temperature increase of 4°C by 2100, double the target of 2°C. Flannery suggests that the COP 21 United Nations negotiations currently underway in Paris may be able to reduce that increase to 2.7°C.

All these figures simply mean that the pressure to “strand” fossil fuel reserves will intensify, and investments will flee from oil, gas and coal corporations as both public and political attitudes accelerate toward green energy, an option that is becoming as viable as the alternative is becoming dismal.

Civilizations have a momentum that resists rapid changes of direction. But on this crucial matter of energy, world opinion is shifting to Professor Schellnhuber’s conclusion: “In the end it is moral decision. Do you want to be part of the generation that screwed up the planet for the next 1,000 years? I don’t think we should make that decision.”

Last week’s omitted column was “Nounism”, see