Professor Lorenzo Pellegrini on a future without fossil fuels

Inaugural lecture Lorenzo Pellegrini - holding up tee-shirt
The end of fossil capitalism ... also means the end of cheap energy.

Professor Lorenzo Pellegrini

Professor of Economics of Environment and Development

Lorenzo Pellegrini is praised for his excellent research and teaching activities and his substantial publications. He has made a significant impact on the field of development research with his work. At ISS, he is part of the Global Development and Social Justice research programme. As an academic, he engages with a great variety of themes: the socio-environmental impact of extractive industries, environmental justice, impact evaluation, institutions and corruption. The countries in which he has conducted research include Bhutan, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, India, Italy, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, Rwanda, and Vietnam.

The title of your inaugural lecture is: 'Imagining the end of fossil capitalism: Supply-side climate policies and the fight to leave fossil fuels under the soil.'  Can you tell us more about your ideas for this lecture?

‘The title of my inaugural lecture is inspired by a famous quote of the American literary critic, philosopher and Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson. He said: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” I believe that we now find ourselves at a critical junction in history; we need to imagine a future in which we do not use fossil fuels anymore.

‘The ideas for this lecture came to me a few years ago when I was in the Amazon rainforest. I was standing on a tower that is part of Tiputini biodiversity station in the Ecuadorian Amazon. From there, you have a wonderful view, seeing the monkeys and the birds that inhabit the rainforest. Overlooking the thick canopy of this place of immense beauty, I almost felt as if I was in paradise. Suddenly, I heard an engine. It was the generator belonging to an oil well. Standing in a park where uncontacted indigenous people live, these sounds came as a shock. Why do we extract oil in biodiversity hotspots? The majority of identified oil reserves should remain where they are, under the soil. While the overwhelming majority of climate policies aim to reduce the demand for fossil fuels, I propose to work on policies that restrict the supply-side: making sure that fossil fuels are protected from exploitation. Biodiversity hotspots would be a great place to start.’

Will the creation and implementation of policies on the supply-side of fossil fuels be sufficient to prevent further global warming?

‘In order for it to be successful, we seriously need to rethink the whole economy. What are the mechanisms to get to a fossil free economy? One is to force a transition to leave fossil fuels where they are and change our overall consumption. States should facilitate this; they should promote and stimulate the necessary transitions. Moreover, they should financially support the poorest parts of society.

‘In the last few decades our consumption of fossil fuels has steadily increased, despite climate policies that have tried to diminish our demand. We are already very late. It is incredibly urgent that we act now.’

Will your plea be heard by those in power?

‘These days, the effects of climate change are obvious. You can see and feel the impacts of climate change everywhere. It is so striking, that we simply cannot ignore it anymore. We must form alliances with the many social movements that are committed to these issues. Together, we should make a difference.’

That sounds hopeful.

‘Well, I can relate to the words of Antonio Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”. I am passionate about the topics that I work on, and I try to make a difference.’

'I am passionate about the topics that I work on, and I try to make a difference.'

Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels can also lead to new dependencies, like using more metals or relying heavier on regimes that violate human rights. How should we prevent falling into the trap of creating new problems whilst combatting the old ones?

‘Certain things must become common sense. Take for instance our dependency on Russian gas. We already knew that this dependency existed for many years. When the Ukrainian war started, our reliance on Russian gas seemed to come as a surprise. Creating awareness of our various dependencies is important. We should reduce our overall consumption and move to more frugal forms of energy consumption. The end of fossil capitalism that I will speak about during my inaugural lecture also means the end of cheap energy.’

How should we effectuate this?

‘We should change the prices of energy. In addition, the consumption and the production of certain goods should become more expensive. Certain types of consumption should even become prohibited. Take for instance the use of private jets. Their emissions are tremendous. These kinds of luxurious consumption must end.’
Those measures will affect the topmost wealthy people. What about other groups in society? Ten euros flight tickets from Amsterdam to Rome come to mind…

‘When I was studying in Amsterdam twenty years ago, I used to take a lovely night train from Rimini to Amsterdam. Today, this train connection no longer exists. Not only should those ridiculously cheap flight tickets come to an end, but there should also be good and affordable alternatives. Let’s bring those night trains back!

‘It is a pity that this has not been done before. Over the years, all the European subsidies have gone to airline companies. In addition to that, there was disagreement between European countries over the creation of a system which makes buying an international train ticket easier. Such a measure can be solved with a little coordination. Now we find ourselves in a difficult position. We have missed over 30 years of necessary investments in our international railway system, that requires international cooperation and financial support.

‘Yet, we must do it. I find it quite extravagant to tell people not to fly when there are no alternatives. Not everybody has the time nor the financial resources to spend a lot of money on train tickets. We must be reasonable in what we can ask of people and create new and fair options.’

Hans Schwarzkopf

You have been successful in making the change with your research. Your work in the Ecuadorian Amazon is a good example of this. Can you tell us more about the impact of your research there and how it has caused positive societal changes?

‘As a researcher, I try to collaborate with social movements and provide them with necessary data and support. In the case of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the livelihood of indigenous people depends on the rainforest. Oil extraction jeopardizes this. I am part of the research project All eyes on the Amazon. With indigenous people, we have co-created instruments to generate actionable information about the liabilities generated by extractive industries. The data that this research project produced has enabled indigenous people to organize effective legal mobilization. In close collaboration with local communities and other research colleagues we have collected evidence of deforestation and environmental damage. For this, we have used state-of-the-art-technology such as satellites and drones. The legal campaign of the indigenous people stirred the Ecuadorian state into action.’

The project All eyes on the Amazon is a joint effort of many international organizations, among which Hivos and Greenpeace. How has the collaboration with so many partners played out?

‘As an academic, I try to engage in the most productive and interesting academic interventions. This can be on a small or on a larger level, the size doesn’t necessarily matter. Admittedly, large projects with many partners like these do have more impact. Nevertheless, it also makes the work more complex. The NGOs we collaborated with for this project are big organizations. Hence, the scale of their machinery is also extensive, which can sometimes be challenging.’

This project has come a long way; it builds on over 10 years of research and partnerships with local organizations and communities. Soon, the project will be concluded. Will it continue in the future in a different shape, just like it has done throughout all these years?

‘It is likely. There is this madness in academia, in which one should always come up with something new. Stability is not always sufficiently recognized. That is a pity because strong relationships and stability lead to impactful outcomes. Building those relationships with partners and local communities is a long-term process. This project is just the last one in a string of projects that started over a decade ago. It is a good example of the important connections that we as academics can make with civil society. The insights we gain with our research can provide them with useful tools that can lead to change. I am passionate about this work so the journey continues in any case.’ 

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