The climate crisis is an urgent one, not only for the environment but for the human race. And as it continues to loom over us, fossil fuels are burning up our future by augmenting global temperatures that we recognise all too well as global warming. This has led to warming oceans, diminishing amounts of snow and ice, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather patterns all across the globe.
Fossil fuels: the bane of our environment
So far, the average global temperature has increased by 0.85°C from 1880 to 2012 and is predicted to rise by more than 1.5°C by the end of this century compared to 1850 to 1900. This is largely fuelled by global carbon dioxide emissions, which have risen by nearly 50 per cent since 1990 and increased more rapidly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three preceding decades.
A major culprit of these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels—non-renewable energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas—which emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Sustainability efforts to light a ray of hope
For decades, the international community has engaged in efforts to try and curb global warming. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a global organisation which has enacted treaties like the 2015 Paris Agreement to stabilise the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentrations and mitigate human interference in the environment.
Locally, youth sustainability efforts have been underway to sound urgent calls for fossil fuel divestment, such as the collective statement, “An urgent call from Singaporean youths on the environmental crisis,” which was released during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year. 2021 also saw the Singapore Climate Rally of “The People in Crisis.”
Closer to campus, we have Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F), an inter-university student coalition comprising students from NUS, NTU, SMU, SUTD, and Yale-NUS. They aim to hold Singaporean universities accountable for the part they play in the climate crisis and their capability to address it.
Getting our universities to rethink their relationship with the fossil fuel industry
On Jan 17, the coalition published a report titled Fossil-Fuelled Universities which documents substantial links between Singapore’s universities and the fossil fuel industry; such as in the areas of finances, management, academia, professional development, and the usage of campus spaces.
For instance, universities in Singapore have allowed companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP to enter the education landscape to promote their brands and hold recruitment campaigns.
This enables the companies to obtain “broad social acceptance and approval, and purchase a “social [licence]” to continue their status quo,” according to the report.
Such linkages can impair the universities’ academic freedom, raise questions over conflicts of interest in management, and send students into a sunset industry.
This comes as fossil fuel companies continue to drive much of anthropogenic climate change—just 20 of them are producing a third of all carbon emissions.
Challenging the status quo to push for positive change
The report is a bottom-up, independent research effort by over 60 individuals including current students, alumni, academics, civil society members, and lawyers. It is “the culmination of three years of effort, and testifies to the urgency and severity all of us across generations feel towards the climate crisis and transitioning away from fossil fuels,” said Mr Shawn Ang, a member of the S4F team.
He added, “As students, we’re constantly worried about backlash, censorship, and reprisal from publicly questioning the status quo. Yet, we press on and dedicate countless hours, weekends, and months of our lives to this, knowing that our short window of time to act to ensure our planet remains habitable is almost gone. We cannot rest without doing everything we can.”
Ultimately, the coalition hopes that the universities “divest from fossil fuels, seek sustainable alternatives to replace existing partnerships, sponsorships, and funding from the fossil fuel industry, [and] implement climate crisis education, over the short, medium, and long term.”
The energy source we have used for centuries
But with all the evil that we know fossil fuels to be, this begs the question: why are they still a thing today? To understand this, let’s look at some of the (outdated) advantages of using fossil fuels—there has to be a reason why we have used fossil fuels as our energy source for the past 250 years.
Fossil fuels used to be relatively abundant in supply, making them a cheap and reliable source of energy to produce and distribute. They are also used to make many of the products we use daily—just take a look at all the plastic objects around you; bags, bottles, stationery…the list can go on and on. More famously, they were the main driving force behind the Industrial Revolution, which transformed societies all over the world in terms of how we lived and worked.
However, these perceived benefits are now falling behind. Fossil fuel supplies are dwindling, in turn leading to increased production expenses, while single-use plastics are creating vast environmental problems when they are thrown out after use.
More importantly, there are more consequences than benefits that fossil fuels are bringing to the environment. For one, they are non-renewable and will eventually run out. They are also extremely dangerous to produce—mining for them comes at a human cost as miners can be injured or killed in mine collapses and fires or refinery and oil rig explosions.
Crude oil spills can also fatally pollute our water bodies, resulting in irreversible loss to wildlife and biodiversity. The burning of fossil fuels has also led to air pollution, smog, and acid rain, among many other environmental disasters.
On a social level, fossil fuel companies can further perpetuate environmental injustice for low-income communities and communities of colour, as toxic waste sites are more often found near those communities, subjecting them to unfair events of air, water, and land pollution that they do not deserve. Unfortunately, these people are also unlikely to be the main beneficiaries of such energy sources as well.
But let’s not miss the forest for the trees; the most infamous consequence of all is quite obviously, global warming itself.
The ‘future’ of this sunset industry
It seems like habits are hard to break—fossil fuels are still the most widely used energy source, supplying about 80 per cent of the world’s energy, and giving us electricity, heat, transportation, and almost all the products we own.
However, the world is gradually recognising that fossil fuels are unsustainable, which has driven transitions towards cleaner renewable energy sources like solar and wind that do not emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. And the rise of numerous green jobs is solid proof that this is the sunrise industry we need.
Sustainability is not just any other buzzword—it is our future. And the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis epitomises the phrase “short-term gain, long-term pain.” The human race has worked on reducing carbon emissions for far too long—change has to come a lot more swiftly for us to really save our planet. And it is up to us to take the actions we deem necessary in playing our part for the environment that has supported our lives.