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Could we actually ‘just stop oil’?

Just Stop Oil has vowed to continue disrupting high-profile sporting events after a string of protests at fixtures this summer.

It is “becoming Just Stop Oil’s signature form of protest” and has “yielded some extraordinary scenes”, wrote Joe Sommerlad in The Independent. One protester disrupted British number-one Katie Boulter’s first-round match against Daria Saville, throwing a Wimbledon-branded jigsaw puzzle and orange confetti glitter onto the court.

And last month at Lord’s, England cricketer Jonny Bairstow carried a protester off the pitch after the group targeted the first day of the second Ashes Test.

The group “aims to persuade the UK government to end fossil fuel exploitation”, said Sommerlad, and instead to “invest in more sustainable renewable energy ventures”. The Week takes a look at how that might happen.

Could we ‘just stop oil’?

Just Stop Oil demands the UK government “halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production” of fossil fuels, said The Ecologist. This is because “all leading earth scientists agree that fossil fuel burning must stop immediately to avoid cascading, domino effect, tipping points.”

Although “humanity has made huge progress” in accelerating the move to “a more sustainable, cleaner future”, fossil fuels account for 81% of the Earth’s energy supply, according to Earth.org. But alternative options are “becoming increasingly available”. 

Alternative energy sources for running vehicles include biodiesel, renewable diesel and propane, as well as electricity and hydrogen. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is also “a game-changing advancement” in the airline industry. 

There are, however, “obstacles that are responsible for slowing down progress”. These include cost and the fact that it’s “hard to make them readily available and accessible for a large part of society”. 

Realistically, oil and gas is needed in the short term or “civilisation will crumble”, claimed Elon Musk last year. He described the transition to sustainable energy and economies as “one of the biggest challenges the world has ever faced” and one that will “take some decades to complete”.

What would happen if we stopped using oil tomorrow?

An end to fossil fuels would have an “immediate and significant global impact on poverty, food supply, global products, machinery, plastics, and other aspects of the economy”, wrote Tina Olivero in The OGM.

“It took 100 years for oil and gas to be integrated into society,” she said. “It will take at least 25 years to remove it responsibly”.

To meet the 1.5C goal, 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal must remain unextracted, according to Nature. The UN said its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2021 “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet”.

But Ralph Sims, a professor at Massey University’s School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, said it is just “not feasible” to do this immediately. “The global economy, human health and livelihoods currently depend heavily on oil, coal and gas,” he wrote for The Conversation. “But over time, we need to displace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewable energy sources.”

What if we’d never had access to fossil fuels?

Historically, without oil, “political power would have shifted towards Russia, Canada and South America”, said Luis Villazon in Science Focus. This is because “wood and charcoal were used as fuel” and “wood was already becoming scarce in Britain” in the 16th century. The aforementioned countries, by contrast, had “huge areas of forested land”. 

Because scientists would have had to artificially synthesise the oil we use, “plastics and synthetic rubber would not be developed until much later” and, without natural gas to make fertilisers, “the world would need four times as much agricultural land”.

Electrical power, including wind turbines and hydroelectric dams “would still be perfectly possible… and could have been developed to fulfil all our needs”. But computers, “if they existed, would be large and primitive”. This is because “electronics without plastic for insulation would be very challenging”. 

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