Angela CarterAngela Carter 
Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts 
> Department of Political Science 
> Fellow, Balsillie School of International Affairs

Scientists warn that we have approximately 30 years to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels to avoid irreparable damage to our climate and the intensifying health impacts caused by climate breakdown.

Over the past two decades, grassroots groups around the world have been demanding change, and “keep it in the ground” legislation banning the exploration and production of fossil fuels is starting to take hold. Angela Carter, a University of Waterloo professor of Political Science, is working with PhD students in the Faculty of Environment and at the Balsillie School of International Affairs to research how this movement gains strength—and what opportunities exist to spread similar bans around the world.

And now, as the price of oil collapses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be more need than ever before to reassess our relationship with fossil fuels.

"As oil prices plunge below zero and governments around the world make historic investments in economic recovery in response to the COVID-19 calamity, exploring pathways to leaving fossil fuels in the ground is now more relevant than ever," Carter says. "Here in Canada, our task in the months ahead is to jumpstart a low carbon economy that provides our communities with long-term stability, without worsening health crises caused by climate breakdown. Winding down fossil fuel extraction will be a challenging part of that effort — but we can learn from other countries that have already begun this process."

The spread of legislative bans

Costa Rica was the first country to introduce a ban on fossil fuel development in 2002, but the movement gained momentum in 2017 when France announced it would phase out oil and gas exploration and production. A wave of other countries then proposed similar legislation in rapid succession, including Belize, Ireland, New Zealand and Denmark.

“Our research involves undertaking an international comparative research project to understand the social, political and economic factors that enable these bans to take shape in the global ‘first-mover’ cases,” Carter says. “Interviews with people directly involved in building momentum for these bills reveal trends in how this ground-breaking legislation can be proposed and passed, highlighting obstacles along the way. The goal is to build a roadmap for organizations that want to push for similar bans in other jurisdictions.”

Starting at the grassroots

Carter explains that broad based groups made up of environmental, labour, faith, civil rights and Indigenous rights organizations are more successful when they work together and use ideas that resonate.

“The need to ban fossil fuel extraction has to be communicated in a way that matters to local citizens,” says Carter. “We found in Ireland that a Catholic organization with experience working in the Global South and observing the impact of draught caused by the climate crisis was critical in the development of the ‘keep it in the ground’ legislation in that country. The faith organization’s moral authority gave them more legitimacy. As a result, they had stronger political influence than environmental organizations working alone.”

Bans often develop from local, grassroots campaigns to protect some aspect of their community, such as drinking water. As local organizations achieve success, they are inspired to look for ways to make larger impacts and scale up their efforts. They begin to work strategically to reach out to larger international organizations for help and advice.

Policies to keep fossil fuels in the ground are starting to spread. For instance, parliamentarians in Dublin responsible for moving the Irish ban forward have advised politicians in Iceland on replicating the bill. While most of the countries that have introduced “keep it in the ground” legislation to date do not have petro-dependent economies, Carter believes that this set of first-mover nations is triggering a conversation that could lead to urgently needed change.

“The first movers of any significant social change in history are not typically those who are most entrenched in the existing system. I wouldn’t expect to see countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Canada enacting this type of legislation just yet,” says Carter. “But first movers are changing the conversation. They are setting a new moral standard by saying that fossil fuels are so damaging to the global environment that we should not touch them. That’s a powerful step towards delegitimizing fossil fuels.”

The hope is that the global first movers leaving fossil fuels in the ground are creating a new reality for climate policy at a time when it’s most desperately needed. It’s a new way of tackling the problem, and they are setting an example that can be replicated by other countries as they invest to recover from COVID.

Read more from Carter, Bailout for people and communities, not oil and gas industry.