Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
Climate, The Left, and History
Issue #4


Issue #4


Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

Published by the Groupe d'études géopolitiques, with the support of the Fondation de l'École normale supérieure

In the essay that opens this edition of the review GREEN, Paul Magnette proposes an exercise in historical reflection: the key to any potential “exit” from the Anthropocene or “fossil capital” could be found in the historic experience of the “Fossil Crescent” — the part of Europe that extends from Northern England, through Wallonia, all the way to Silesia. These coalfields witnessed both coal’s peak and its brutal collapse. It is a part of Europe that witnessed an early industrial decline, a part of Europe that Magnette, who is mayor of Charleroi, knows well and which, through a twist of historical fate could become the example to follow, the snuffed out lighthouse showing the way out of the Anthropocene.

But what exactly is the story here?

With the climate crisis, the history of energy has seen a certain uptick in interest. While this is welcome, it is also regrettable that historiography has been content to simply apply political explanations to the standard transactionist narrative. Several authors cited by Paul Magnette believe that they can see capitalism’s dirty work in the history of energy: the steam engine was simply a means of breaking free from the constraints of place and exploiting an abundant urban workforce (Andreas Malm); oil had the effect, or even the purpose, of circumvent miners and their unions thanks to its fluid nature (Timothy Mitchell). These compelling narratives do not hold up to analysis: the main purpose of coal was to produce heat. In England, coal extraction began when the price of firewood rose, spurred by urban growth — the steam engine is more of a symbol than a cause of the Anthropocene. As for oil, it did not circumvent miners simply due to the fact that it was not replacing coal; above all, it served to power cars whose production consumed enormous quantities of coal. The decline in the number of miners was not caused by oil, but rather by technological advances in mining. The appeal of the “political” history of energy, which is also its flaw, is that it tends to present climate change as the side-effect of a capitalist endeavor of domination. This historiography, which may seem radical but is reassuring for the anti-capitalist left, underestimates the enormity of the climate challenge: breaking free of carbon will be far more difficult than breaking free from capitalism, a necessary but insufficient condition.

In order to be relevant in the face of global warming, history must shed the phasist narratives of the material world, which present modernity as a series of transitions that anticipate the one to come. Energy sources create as much symbiosis as they do competition. For example, in 1900, England and Belgium consumed more wood just to support the roof of their coal mines than they had burned in the previous century. Coal spurred the consumption of wood, and oil spurred consumption of coal and therefore of wood. 1 The result? We have never burned more wood, coal, and oil as we do today. Just as the “Fertile Crescent” currently consumes much more grain than during Antiquity, the “Fossil Crescent”, despite its shuttered blast furnaces and abandoned mines, remains a major consumer of coal. If we take into account the coal included in imports, Great Britain consumes 90 million tons (in 2016) — instead of the 9 million tons officially burnt — almost as much as on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the mines of England. 2

A man made geological revolution

What was important in the idea of Anthropocene was to point to the issue of irreversibility. Contrary to the expression “environmental crisis”, which implies a brief challenge whose end is near, the Anthropocene marks a point of no return. It is not a crisis that we are living through but a turning point in the Earth’s geological history. The economic development of the past several decades will change the environment for the next several centuries. We will not be able to escape the Anthropocene and we will no longer know the climates of the Holocene. 3 This is well known. What has been less understood — and the fault lies with the wrong view of material history — is that this irreversibility applies almost as much to the anthropos as it does to the planet. The Anthropocene signals a dual irreversibility, a dual accumulation, an accumulation of accumulations: not only are material flows piling up in various segments of the Earth-system, but anthropogenic material flows also follow a cumulative pattern.

Any serious discussion about environmental matters must start from the rather disconcerting historic observation that technological innovations have, until now, never eliminated a flow of material consumption. Throughout the 20th century, the range of raw material available worldwide expanded and each was consumed in ever increasing quantity. 4 So far, technological substitution has always been offset by market expansion, rebound effects and shifts in usage.

Supporters of green growth base their hopes on the decrease in the economy’s carbon intensity which has already been halved since 1980. But this statistic hides the unshakeable hold fossil fuels have in the production of just about everything. 5 Since the 1970s, global agriculture has increased its dependency on oil and methane as a result of advances in mechanization and the growing use of nitrogen fertilizers. Mining and metallurgy, faced with declining resource quality, are also becoming more energy-intensive. 6 Building materials are more carbon intensive as well: aluminum requires more energy than steel, polyurethane more than fiberglass, wood panels more than planks. 7 Even though concrete is less energy intensive than bricks, many poor — or formerly poor — countries have used it to replace decarbonized materials such as adobe and bamboo. 8 Finally, with the expansion of value chains, outsourcing, and globalization, the number of kilometers that each product or component travels has increased, and with it, the role of oil in the smooth functioning of the economy. These phenomena have been hidden by the increased efficiency of machines and the share of services in global GDP, but they are nevertheless major obstacles on the road to decarbonization. 

These historical observations do not stem from some irrefutable law of thermodynamics; they simply allow us to grasp the enormity of the challenge to overcome — or the scale of the coming disaster.

Green energies and grey materials 

The fact that solar panels and wind turbines have become competitive — including against coal — could lead us to believe that after many false starts, the “energy transition” is well and truly underway and that the world is about to undergo a fundamental shift. The goal here is obviously not to criticize the “transition” if we are referring to the development of renewable energies, but this necessary condition is inadequate and it is unreasonable to expect more from solar panels and wind turbines than they can offer. 

Firstly, electricity production only represents 40% of global emissions, and 40% of this electricity is already decarbonized. Eliminating fossil fuels from global electricity production before 2050 would be an extraordinary success, but inadequate in terms of climate objectives. 9 Like all other energy sources, renewables are caught in a web of material symbiosis. According to recent calculations, the construction of renewable energy infrastructure at a global scale would only represent a small amount of CO2, approximately 50 GT, to produce solar panels and wind turbines as well as the materials they are made of — a highly worthwhile climate investment. 10 Much more problematic, however, are the symbiotic relationships that happen down the line in the world of consumerism. Renewables cannot competitively produce materials on which contemporary infrastructure, machinery and logistics depend on –steel, cement, and plastic– on the scale and within the timeframe required to reach our climate targets. If “green” electricity powers the same gray world comprising 1.5 billion cars, crisscrossed with cement and steel infrastructure, churning industrial goods made of plastics and many other materials besides, eating food produced with methane and pesticides , climate change will only be slowed down. 

But let us be more factual. In regard to “green steel”, that is reduced with hydrogen instead of coke, industry announcements and projections by the International Energy Agency point to a few million tons per year after 2030, a negligible amount compared to the 1.7 billion tons of steel consumed worldwide each year. 11 Despite all the grandiose promises, since the 2000s, the carbon intensity of steel has stagnated. 12 Replacing coke with electrolytic hydrogen in steel mill would require approximately 4,000 Twh of electricity, equivalent to the United States’ annual electricity production or 1.2 million wind turbines, which would themselves require a significant amount of steel. 13 Concerning cement, despite the rapid modernization of cement plants since the 2000s, cement’s carbon intensity has increased by 1.5% every year over the past decade. Emissions from cement plants have tripled since 1990 and represent 8% of global emissions. 14 We can also look at plastic, which is responsible for 3-5% of global emissions and shows no sign of slowing down. Plastic production has quadrupled since 1990 and there are still vast, untapped markets. On average, an American consumes four times more plastic than a Chinese person and fifteen times more than an Indian person. The problem is that substitution materials — paper and, above all, aluminum — have an even higher carbon footprint. 15 Finally, there are nitrogen fertilizers, which are responsible for 1.5% of emissions at the production stage — which could eventually be reduced through “green” hydrogen — but 5% overall if we take into account their transformation into nitrous oxide by soil bacteria. 16

Wind turbines and solar panels are remarkable technologies for generating electricity, but they are of little interest when it comes to producing these materials. 17 Believing that innovation can decarbonize the steel, cement, and plastic industries, as well as the production and use of fertilizers, within thirty years even though recent trends have been reversed, is a rather foolish technological gamble. Taken all together, steel, cement, fertilizers, and plastics are enough to put the Paris Agreement objective out of reach. 18

Powerless history

Ever since economic development spread across the globe, history has slipped by leaving only miniscule traces on the curve of global CO2 emissions. The First World War followed by the Spanish flu caused a 17% decline, and the crisis of 1929 caused a 25% decline. However, the 1979 oil crisis and the 2008 financial crisis only had modest effects (-6% and -1%). Even the confinements of 2020, which affected up to 4 billion people, only lowered global emissions by 5% and they rebounded strongly in 2021. Despite these facts, we regularly tout various events as hypothetical catalysts for breaking free from fossil fuels. For example, much commentary has been made about American elections and their supposed importance for the climate. Following the vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, Paul Krugman boldly declared that it was “a major step towards saving the planet” 19 , perhaps forgetting that the United States only represents 13% of global emissions and that Biden’s climate plan made no provision for sobriety. Recently, in an essay for le Grand Continent 20 , philosopher Pierre Charbonnier explains how the invasion of Ukraine has the potential to be the catalyst for the much-anticipated transition. But Russian gas sold to the EU only represents 1.5% of global emissions and the demand for hydrocarbons remains strong : the closing of a few gazoducts will obviously not do much to change the evolution of global temperatures. 21 All these commentaries connecting news, however tragic they are, and climate change demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of what is at stake. 

Of course, climate change is an historic phenomenon, but since it is the sum of all human action on the planet, now, it largely escapes history. While it’s easy enough for a historian to explain climate change, identifying what could stop it is beyond the scope of historical imagination. Faced with the Titan of climate change, the social sciences often propose “solutions” without having gauged the depth of the problem. Technical challenges are pushed aside and left to the expertise of the IPCC’s Working Group III, whose work of producing scenarios with often confused in th e public with energy forecasting. We act as though decarbonizing is a simple problem of investments, a problem of social engineering and political will. 

Is all this so terribly depressing that it should be told? On the contrary : acknowledging that it is impossible to decarbonize entire sectors of the global economy in time for our climatic goals should put the left back at the center of the political game. Instead of debating like in the 1990s and 2000s around the respective meritof the carbon tax or pollution rights, let’s acknowledge that it will be impossible to decarbonize global steel, global cement, and aviation before 2050. This will force in the political debate the real issue of climate change : agreeing on democratic and equitable means of reducing consumption. Let us focus on the fair and efficient distribution of material goods on a global scale: redistribution was the left’s core issue from its inception, and this is the link connecting historical socialism to the eco-socialism dear, and rightfully so, to Paul Magnette. 22


  1. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Sans transition. Une nouvelle histoire de l’énergie, Paris, Le Seuil, 2024.
  2. Calculations based on X.F. Wu and G.Q. Chen, “Coal use embodied in globalized world economy: From source to sink through supply chain”, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, no. 81, 2018, pp. 978-993.  The Haut Conseil pour le Climat offers a similar estimate for France: “the carbon footprint of the French” write the Hauts Conseillers “increased by 20% between 1995 and 2017. Since 1995, emissions linked to imports have doubled, while those linked to domestic production have fallen by a fifth. […] In 2015, the French carbon footprint reached 11t CO2e per capita, in comparison national emissions are estimated at 6.6t CO2e per capita”. See : Haut Conseil pour le Climat, Annual Report 2019, p. 34.
  3. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Sans transition. Une nouvelle histoire de l’énergie, Paris, Le Seuil, 2024.
  4. Of the seventy main raw materials, Christopher L. Magee and Tessaleno C. Devezas identify only six that have dropped since 1960: asbestos, mercury, beryllium, tellurium, thallium and sheep’s wool, to which we could add whale oil. Cf. Christopher L. Magee Tessaleno C. Devezas, “A simple extension of dematerialization theory: Incorporation of technical progress and the rebound effect”, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, vol. 117, 2017, p. 196-205. Among the major raw materials, only sheep’s wool has fallen behind synthetic fibers, which is not good news for the environment; Krausman et al. “From resource extraction to outflows 1900-2015”, Global environmental change, 2018; Vaclav Smil, Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, Chichester, Wiley & Sons, 2013; Tessaleno C. Devezas, António M. Vaz and Christopher L. Magee, “Global Pattern in Materials Consumption: An Empirical Study” in Tessaleno Devezas, João Leitão and Askar Sarygulov, Industry 4.0, Studies on Entrepreneurship, Structural Change and Industrial Dynamics, Springer International Publishing, 2017, pp. 263-292.
  5. To generate one dollar of global GDP, 450 grams of CO2 had to be emitted in 1980, compared with 240 grams in 2020. See : IEA, “Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2021”, Paris, IEA, 2022.
  6. T. Norgate, N. Haque, ” Energy and greenhouse gas impacts of mining and mineral processing operations “, Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 18, n°3, 2010, p. 266-274.
  7. Concrete uses three times less energy than bricks. Ignacio Zabalza Bribián, Antonio Valero Capilla, and Alfonso Aranda Usón, “Life cycle assessment of building materials: Comparative analysis of energy and environmental impacts and evaluation of the eco-efficiency improvement potential”, Building and Environment, vol. 46, no. 5, 2011, pp. 1133-1140. G. P. Hammond and C. I. Jones, “Embodied energy and carbon in construction materials”, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Energy, vol. 161, no. 2, 2008, pp. 87-98.
  8. At the beginning of the 21st century, a third of the world’s housing was built from adobe and a sixth from bamboo, materials that are particularly CO2-efficient. By the early 2000s, bamboo provided shelter for one billion people, a rather extraordinary feat when you consider that this plant accounts for just one percent of the world’s forest cover. INBAR/FAO, “World Bamboo Resources. A thematic Study prepared in the Framework of the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005”, 2007, p. 31.
  9. IEA figures. See: https://www.iea.org/fuels-and-technologies/electricity. It should also be noted that between 2000 and 2022, three times as many coal-fired power plants were opened worldwide (1.5 TW) than were closed (0.45 TW). Calculated from https://globalenergymonitor.org/projects/global-coal-plant-tracker/ data.
  10. Aljoša Slameršak, Giorgos Kallis and Daniel W. O’Neill, “Energy requirements and carbon emissions for a low-carbon energy transition” nature communications, November 13, 14, 2022. This means that 3% of fossil fuels would have to be channeled into the production of renewable infrastructures.
  11. . According to the International Energy Agency and the Word Steel Association, hydrogen steel is expected to account for just 8% of the world’s steel by 2050 See: https://worldsteel.org/wp-content/uploads/Fact-sheet-Hydrogen-H2-based-ironmaking.pdf
  12. Wang et al., « Efficiency stagnation in global steel production urges joint supply- and demand-side mitigation efforts », Nature communications, 2021, vol. 12 p. 2066.
  13. Calculation based on European Union data for 2020. It takes 55 kWH to produce one kilo of hydrogen and 50 kilos of hydrogen to produce one ton of steel : https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/641552/EPRS_BRI(2020)641552_EN.pdf. It is important to note that hydrogen is an indirect greenhouse gas: by combining with OH- radicals in the atmosphere to form water, it disrupts the chemical reactions that break down methane. Matteo B. Bertagni, Stephen W. Pacala, Fabien Paulot & Amilcare Porporato, “Risk of the hydrogen economy for atmospheric methane”, Nature Communications, vol. 13, 2022.
  14. Cuihong Chen et al, “A Striking Growth of CO2 emissions from the global cement industry driven by new facilities in emerging countries”, Environmental Research Letters, vol. 17, 2022 ; https://www.iea.org/reports/cement ; In the early 2000s, the majority of cement was still produced in vertical kilns, a legacy of the Great Leap Forward. In 2020, 99% of Chinese cement was produced in modern rotary kilns. See : Andrew Rabeneck, “The transformation of construction by concrete”, Robert Carvais et al. (eds.) Nuts and Bolts of Construction History, vol. 2, pp. 627-636; Xiaozhen Xu et al, “Modernizing cement manufacturing in China leads to substantial environmental gains”, Communications Earth & Environment, vol. 3, 2022.
  15. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/climate-impact-of-plastics
  16. Yunhu Gao & André Cabrera Serrenho, « Greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizers could be reduced by up to one-fifth of current levels by 2050 with combined interventions », Nature Food, vol. 4, 2023, p. 170-178.
  17. For a rebuttal of the arguments against renewable energies: see Cédric Philibert, Eoliennes, pourquoi tant de haine, Paris, Les petits matins, 2023.
  18. “Residual” emissions declared by countries vary widely between Belgium (9%), France (18%) and Australia (30%). The reality is likely to be at the higher end of this range. See : Holly Jean Buck, Wim Carton, Jens Friis Lund and Nils Markusson, “Why residual emissions matter right now”, Nature climate change, March 9, 2023.
  19. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/01/opinion/can-inflation-reduction-save-the-planet.html
  20. Pierre Charbonnier, La naissance de l’écologie de guerre, Grand Continent, mars 2022.
  21. In 2021, gas accounted for 30% of European emissions, which represented 9% of global emissions. 45% of gas consumed in the European Union was Russian.
  22. Paul Magnette, La vie large, La Découverte, 2022.
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Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Climate, The Left, and History, Jan 2024,

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