Defusing the carbon bomb

In order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, over 80 per cent of known fossil-fuel reserves cannot be burned. As political systems fail to act, Danny Chivers writes about the social movements targeting mines, rigs, infra­structure and investment.

Illustrations: Jason Ngai


Buddhist temples are shifting investments out of fossil fuels, part of a global ‘divestment’ movement that has so far pulled over $8 trillion from oil, gas and coal companies worldwide. Japan is a key target: three of its biggest banks – Mizuho Financial Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group – are the first, second and fifth-largest lenders to coal projects globally.

A new alliance of Japanese campaigners, supported by the climate action network, is pushing for the withdrawal of an estimated $25 billion. Buddhist priest Tomonobu Narita, who recently shifted part of his temple’s investments into a fossil-free fund, told NBC News: ‘Small action when combined [with the actions of others] leads to a bigger effect, so I hope for divestment to have that kind of spread in Japan.’

In response, the three major banks have said they will review and reduce their coal lending. But campaigners are determined to push them further, especially since other Japanese financial institutions such as Nippon Life, Dai-ichi Life and ITOCHU have pledged to exit coal altogether.


European campaigners are celebrating after regulators blocked a major natural gas pipeline.

A section of the $3.4-billion MidCat pipeline – planned to connect the Spanish and French gas grids – was built in 2012 but has sat idle as political battles raged over the rest of the 1,250-kilometre route.

In January 2019, regulators rejected the middle portion of the pipe­line, citing ‘lack of necessity and high cost’. This followed years of work by campaign network Plataforma Resposta al MidCat, who highlighted the severe potential climate impacts of the pipeline, particularly leaks of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – during extraction and transportation, which can make natural gas as polluting as coal.

The Midi-Catalonia (MidCat) pipeline is just one of more than 90 proposed gas projects earmarked for potential EU funding, thanks to aggressive lobbying by the fossil-fuel industry that often uses the argument that gas is needed as a temporary ‘bridge’ to a renewable future.

Campaigners point out that building a new network of pipelines and gas plants would lock Europe into using this dirty fuel for decades to come and diverts public funds away from boosting renewables.


If built, the notorious Adani Carmichael mega-mine would eat up 0.5 per cent of the world’s remaining carbon budget – the amount science says we can risk burning before tipping the world over 1.5° C.

The Queensland government granted approval for the mine’s construction in June 2019, after nine years of delays. But its developers, the Adani group – headed by one of India’s richest men – still face determined opposition from an alliance of Pacific Islanders, local indigenous peoples, concerned citizens and striking schoolchildren. Campaigners have also linked up with anti-pollution activists in India, the destination for most of the 2.7 billion tonnes of coal that Adani would churn out over its 60-year lifespan.

The Adani group has faced over nine legal set backs. A federal judge overturned a legal challenge by the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples, the traditional owners of the land, in August 2018. The mine was also forced to address environmental standards set by the Queensland government – including a plan for protecting the rare black-throated finch.

The mine’s approval is a major set back at a time when the wider mood had seemed to be shifting in Australia. The February 2019 announcement by mining giant Glencore that it will make no new investments in the coal sector had appeared to put pressure on Adani, as did a decision by a court in New South Wales to block a proposed new coalmine at Rocky Hill on climate change grounds.

‘We have to find ways to keep coal and gas in the ground,’ says Mikaele Maiava, a Pacific Climate Warrior from Tokelau. ‘There is nothing more urgent or necessary.’


Patagonia’s shale formations could generate billions of barrels of oil and gas – and local resistance is determined to keep it underground.

The huge Vaca Muerta (‘Dead Cow’) deposit is thought to be the world’s second-largest reserve of shale oil and gas. But even though every major transnational oil company has purchased leases to extract from the dead cow, the industry can still be stopped.

The indigenous Mapuche people have played a leading role, using legal tactics and direct action, and facing violent crackdowns from the state authorities. Some 50 local towns have passed civil ordinances to ban it, which has successfully delayed the spread of the fracking rigs.

New tactics are emerging. Towns such as Neuquén, Fernandez Oro and Allen have succeeded in passing laws that have created ‘frack-free zones’ around farms and orchards and tightened regulation. Such measures push up the industry’s costs, making it look less attractive to investors.

‘To wreck reliable long-term livelihoods such as apple and pear production in return for just a few years of gas extraction is a terrible deal,’ says Fernando Cabrera from the NGO Observatorio Petrolero Sur, which is working with local people to develop alternative visions to boom-and-bust short-termism.

Legal action is also putting the brakes on oil extraction elsewhere in Latin America. In Peru, a challenge by the Awajún and Wampis peoples has closed off thousands of square kilometres from drilling – and thrown dozens of the country’s oil concessions into doubt.


Local campaigners are determined to stop the construction of East Africa’s first coal-fired power station.

In 2013, the Amu Power consortium, led by Kenyan oil company Gulf Energy (backed by Chinese banks and state-backed firms) won a government contract to build the plant on the edge of the Indian Ocean on Kenya’s southeast coast – just 21 kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lamu Old Town.

The local community, which depends heavily on farming and fishing, sent delegations to South Africa to find out about the impacts of coal plants from people who live near them. They found the real-life stories to be very different from Amu Power’s PR promises of jobs, cheap energy and minimal pollution.

So, in 2016, Save Lamu launched a legal challenge that froze the planned 1,050-megawatt plant. They pulled together expert witnesses to challenge Amu Power’s claims about air quality, impacts on marine life and climate change, as well as its failure to consult the local community properly. ‘We believe we provided enough evidence and have a strong case,’ says Omar Elmawi from campaign partners deCOALonize.

Lamu is up against just one of 1,600 new coal plants that are planned or under construction worldwide, 700 of which are backed by Chinese institutions. The new plants would expand the world’s coal-fired power capacity by 43 per cent and put the Paris climate goals out of reach.

The Kenyan court’s verdict is expected in the next few months. Any result is likely to be appealed – further delaying construction and giving Save Lamu more time to develop their green vision for Kenya.


Indigenous communities have teamed up with coalminers to keep at least 500 million tonnes of coal underground.

The vast Cerejón open-cast mine in La Guajira has been operating since the 1980s. Every year, it produces tens of millions of tonnes of coal – the world’s most polluting, carbon-intensive fossil fuel.

Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have long challenged the mine, using rights they hold under the country’s constitution along with extensive evidence of damage to health, such as respiratory illnesses and cancer, and to local livelihoods of hunting, fishing and farming.

In recent years, the Wayúu people have found an important ally: Cerejón’s coalworkers. ‘When we were a new union we just focused on workers’ rights,’ Aldo Amaya, President of Sintra­carbón union, told UK campaigners last year. ‘As we matured, we began to listen more to communities, to learn what was happening to them, and now we are committed to defending workers and communities.’

To date, this alliance – combined with support from NGOs and using tactics like train line blockades and mine occupations – has prevented Cerejón from diverting the Rancheria river to access an estimated 500 million tonnes of coal. The battle is not over yet. Many suspect Cerejón may be diverting key tributaries that feed the main river instead. Meanwhile coalworkers and communities are advancing visions of a transition away from mining into new and traditional livelihoods.