Why oil must be on the agenda in Rio

You don’t often hear the words “oil” and “development” in the same sentence. And if you do, then more often than not the discussion revolves around the discourse of the “resource curse” – the discovery of oil offers a guaranteed route to corruption, violent conflict, environmental degradation, exploitation of local peoples and, well, downright misery. Maybe we’re not comfortable with the idea that the black stuff coming from some of the world’s poorest and most unstable regions, is driving much of our economy. So when it comes to sustainable development we’re much happier to talk of intelligent urban design, fair trade coffee and cow farts.

The concept of sustainable development on which Rio+20 hinges was first defined by the 1987 UN Brundtland Report as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 5 years later when world leaders met in Rio for the 1992 Earth Summit there was certainly a consensus that sustainable development had to be at the heart of their future plans.

Last month’s EIRIS Sustainability Report argues that by this definition, oil and gas sectors are inherently unsustainable. Oil is a major contributor to global warming. It is the source of some of the most famous environmental disasters. And it generates a vast amount of wealth that is rarely captured by the citizens that supposedly own it.

Perhaps then it would be feasible to suggest that oil really has no place on the agenda of a conference designed to discuss sustainable development. At first sight it is hard to see where oil might fit into the two key themes that underpin Rio+20, other than in discussions that emphasize its incompatibility with a green economy, poverty eradication and sustainability.

But as Daniel Yergin’s The Quest illustrates, fossil fuels remain at the centre of the global economic, political and security landscape. Predictions of the “end of oil” are continually being revised upwards. Whilst the future of global energy access undoubtedly lies in renewable fuels (and OpenOil supports the most aggressive possible expansion of renewable energy sources through investment and research), we are calling for a more balanced approach to solving the world’s energy problems. The UN’s Sustainable Energy for All programme obviously places a massive emphasis on clean and inexhaustible fuels, but when you get to the heart of their figures they are aiming for renewable energy to account for 30% of the global energy mix by 2030. Which puts the importance of managing and regulating the use of fossil fuels into perspective – it’s going to remain the dominant source of energy for decades to come.

Surely sustainable development is as much about meeting the urgent needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, as it is about solar power in the desert, and net-zero buildings. A quick glance at some of the lowest ranking countries on the United Nations Human Development Index confirms the importance of fossil fuels:

Why is it that so many of the countries at the bottom of the index are in fact endowed with enviable oil and gas deposits?

Why should people in Niger starve to death as the country pumps thousands of barrels of oil per day?

Why are communities in Ghana still without clean water and sanitation when the numbers say that initial production from just one field could all but end adult poverty?

How can international oil companies continue drilling as dictators brutally oppress protestors in the background?

In advance of Rio+20, a ‘zero draft’ of the outcome document has already been released, entitled “The Future We Want”. But oil doesn’t get a mention in the 19 page declaration. To my mind it seems strange, or even unrealistic, to contemplate a dialogue on a sustainable future in which oil doesn’t feature. Rio+20 is about finding solutions. For OpenOil bringing oil onto the agenda is the first step in realising the future we want.

It’s a future where oil revenues can be mobilized efficiently and transparently as a tool for sustainable development. Whether it’s through an oil-to-cash dividend in Iraq, or a food security fund in the Sahel, we must start to look at oil as part of the solution. It’s equally a future where leaders will adjust market regulations to curb the environmental effects of oil. For example through Rio+20’s support for the phasing out of environmentally harmful fossil fuel subsidies (see the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s policy brief) or through meaningful discussions on how we might build on existing carbon markets to create a global mechanism to ensure that the polluter pays. I hope that Rio+20 moves beyond the discourse of doom and gloom that traditionally surrounds oil and instead fosters a discussion on how we might better manage the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the oil industry.

Comments are closed.