We started this text by saying that, these days, the principle of decarbonizing the international economy is a distant hypothesis, a myth indeed. However this does not mean that one day there will not be less use of oil, natural gas and coal in the world production of goods, transport and in the processing of natural resources. It all depends on the progress that science can give to synthetic fuels. Who knows, maybe one day there will be an era for the cheapening of hydrogen and the massification of ethanol.
The foundations of the myth are not, necessarily simple inspirations or rootless desires. In the course of history of political investigations into the nature of man the myth was found in Christianity as a motivating force in a world in which the faithful could be raised to meet the Eternal Father, provided they did not flee from certain commandments – a principle also seen in Islam and Judaism.
In the same way the myth was found in the communist movement at the end of the 19th century. The salvation of the working class would be in the proletarian revolution, against the capitalist order – a total transformation of socioeconomic life on Earth that would have the power to restart history under new values. But the important thing to underline in this matter is that in order to achieve the goals of the myth, there cannot be a fixed date or expect results in the short term.
The myth to be realized needs long-term work, without a pre-determined date and does not accept voluntarism. In other words, individual actions, by government officials, activists, bureaucrats, intellectuals or businessmen that are not related to the practice of life, of reality itself, are not convenient. Decisions of this kind are counterproductive, and their results often delay or block the myth's desires.
Well, this political and economic mismatch has been occurring since April 2020, when it was realized that the coronavirus pandemic was going to stay for a long time and would have effects on international relations that would disturb our understanding of this issue. Right from the start, the international economy came to a halt in most countries, inaugurating a period whose understanding is still open for analysis.
Even China, called the “factory of the world”, had to accept the premise that if production stopped and if the worker stayed at home for a while, it could help the world out of complications. of the pandemic. In fact, what China had done was to follow, albeit reluctantly, suggestions from the United States and, mainly, the European Union, which quickly determined the lockdowns as possible instruments of health policy, reliable and urgent for the new humanity's challenges.
As if there were a law of nature, the relative paralysis of the international economy has promoted, even without purpose, the premise (the myth) that decarbonization is here to stay. If world production has largely stopped in the world, there is nothing more credible and intelligent than voluntarily suspending the consumption of hydrocarbons: oil, natural gas and mineral coal – although coal is not hydrocarbon for Geology personnel; but let us regard it thus for the purposes of our argument. As a result of all this, the production of hydrocarbons had also dropped significantly due to lack of consumption.
So, taking this opportunity, decarbonization would be our Holy Grail of the planetary environmental issue: less burning of fossil fuels, less CO2 emission into the atmosphere. Therefore, one more step in the fight against global warming, which has become humanity's number one problem, at least in the perception of the most intellectualized and cosmopolitan sectors of the West.
In this vein, the premise of decarbonization, of using less hydrocarbons as far as possible, has also become the agenda of industrialized countries in the Northern Hemisphere. The United States, under the Democratic government of Joe Biden, had practically put oil as a harmful element of American society. The partial reduction of new prospects in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska and the maximization of shale gas (from the Marcellus deposits in US and Canadian territory) would be the good news of that administration that had thought to combat global warming with the marginalization of fossil fuels.
On the other side of the Atlantic there was the same manifestation full of virtue. Brussels, the center of European regional integration, had privileged the German desire for Europe to enter the process of green power, of renewable energy.
Two explanations: the country acted in Germany's favor because of the decision that Berlin had taken, in the early years of the current century, for the nuclear plants to be gradually shut down as a result of the agreements between the Green Party and the Social Democrats, which had entered in charge of the Chancellery. We should also explain that we use the term “process” because Germany has not come up with anything as sufficient as a substitute for hydrocarbons or nuclear energy. What the government could do to a high degree, and it did, was use Vladimir Putin's Russian natural gas to power Europe's biggest economy. Eastern energy would be considered a means of transition to something more advanced when it comes to environmental quality; an input that would release less CO2, despite being fuel.
What the Old Continent intended to do within the process of replacing the old energies, was to count on new renewable energy technology, which would be able to handle the large amount of inputs needed by industrialized powers. Wind energy, solar energy, white beet fuel alcohol and biodiesel had become the energy sources of the moment, with the promise of achieving energy security for Europe. Until this new era arrived, Russian natural gas had to be imported in large quantities.
In addition to the environmental issue, the European Union's objective could also be, as it has not effectively declared it, to escape dependence on oil from the Middle East. Because it is a highly politically unstable region, and because it concentrates more than 60% of the world's oil reserves, European countries thought of exchanging a more complex dependency for another, less difficult, because it is a country governed by a stable platform, despite everything: the Russia.
The plan used by revisionist governments of the international energy system, based on hydrocarbons, managed to maintain itself until this first half of 2022, with the unfolding of the war between Ukraine and Russia. The Putin government's initiative to shield its "near foreigner" from NATO's harassment, which involves Ukraine as a buffer state, opened the pandora's box of European geopolitics, with irradiation to both America and Asia. The United States and China would be involved, even if indirectly.
In this war by proxy in which Washington seeks to frame Russia by throwing more weapons at Ukraine in the same way that NATO supports the Kiev government, the international economy gradually warmed up, which had its return in China, as expected. At the same time, China's growing energy needs are pushing major oil producers to increase production as quickly as possible. The problem is that in the period of paralysis of the international economy, due to the pandemic, part of the oil infrastructure will be in disuse and will no longer be able to be activated at a pace of urgency.
It's as if there was a lethargy in the oil world and now it has to be woken up with water on its head. After months without high oil production, the infrastructure has to start pumping the product again to meet the growing need pointed out by China, India and other newly industrializing countries in Southeast Asia.
The suspension of energy exported from Russia, due to Western boycotts, the marginalization of new oil explorations in North American territory and the economic animation of Asia revealed that the green power plans would be nothing more than innocence loaded with virtue in search of a better world. led by governmental, intellectual and business elites who no longer thought about international relations under the sign of power. The irony of it all is that Europe itself, the intellectual home of geopolitics and realpolitik, had lent itself to being the source of unattainable desires. Would it be, then, the presupposed green power of people who are more than modern and rich?
The previously disrespected countries, major oil producers in the expanded Middle East, with an extension to Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela, now have an improved image due to the weight exerted by oil in the global economy. His names were wiped clean by the energy crisis. The big financial centers are appealing to Saudi Arabia, to begin with, to prospect more fuel so as not to starve the industrialized countries.
One of the consequences of such displays of kindness was the reactivation of coal-fired power plants. Raw material that was once cursed by its high pollutant content and, therefore, left aside, came into activity in Europe to meet the needs that cannot be covered only with green, renewable energy. Has the environmental issue, so dear to the European Union and the United States, lost the importance it had until 2021?
That's because a convenient feature of coal is that it can be found in Europe and the United States, cutting back a little on the dependence on imported fuel. This element is still the most numerous of all and the cheapest to exploit. In this way, if the environmental importance is maintained, they will say that the problem must be Brazil's, because it deforests the Amazon, and not those who use the polluting stone.
Meanwhile, due to the lack of high oil production, fuel prices increase a lot. The cost of living is rising in the poorest countries and even for the European and North American middle class, accustomed to the comfort provided by the cheap energy of oil, natural gas and coal. The cost of food increases due to transport and agricultural inputs that depend on oil for their manufacture: diesel and fertilizers. Thus, if the promise of a better world through decarbonization was within reach, what has been achieved so far is to instill discouragement and distrust in the idea that poverty can be saved. In fact, in wholesale, the poor are the ones who lose the most.
About the Author: José Alexandre Altahyde Hage is a professor at the Department of International Relations at the Paulista School of Politics, Economics and Business (Eppen) at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), Osasco campus.