Photo by Ian Morse

Climate Extractivism: Avoiding The Pitfalls Of Extraction-Based Decarbonization

Author: Philippe Le Billon

Mainstream climate crisis politics paradoxically exacerbates resource extraction and extractivist political economies. Driven by the combined imperatives of economic growth, corporate profits, and regime survival, most mainstream ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis remain rooted within techno-capitalist extractivist ideologies and practices. A major implication is that climate politics needs to address the logics, processes, and associated injustices of extractivism, a set of diverse developmentalist ideologies resting on materialist assumptions of ‘progress’. But how can climate politics move beyond extractivist logics and practices? The gamut of solutions ranges from circular economies to degrowth. In all cases, the pathways to a ‘post-extractivist’ climate future demand major shifts in power relations across borders, class, gender, race, and human/non-human divides.

The current sense of ‘climate crisis’ is probably stronger than it has ever been. Many people have now personally experienced some of the impacts of climate, the IPCC has grown more assertive in its conclusions, and even the International Energy Agency is calling for an immediate halt to fossil fuel investment projects.
After decades of denial, delays, and petty actions, the fossil fuel industry has taken notice, deploying more than 500 lobbying to COP26, notably to sell the idea that it can reach ‘Net Zero’ fossil fuel production (but not consumption) in the coming decades.

The fossil fuel industry is the only one within the broader extractive sector to reposition itself with regard to climate concerns. In fact, extractive companies are putting themselves at the core of what could be called “extractive climate futures”: moving forward through more but supposedly ‘greener’ resource extraction.

Such ‘climate extractivism’—as I call it—is among the last iterations of ‘extractivism’: a term not simply referring to the production of economic value through the biophysical extraction of resources, but a developmentalist—and increasingly ‘ecological modernist’—ideology mobilizing resource extraction to achieve ‘progress’. Mostly deployed in relation to social and political objectives (e.g. national greatness, poverty reduction, or regime survival), this ideology, together with extractivist logics and extraction processes, is now being discursively and materially rearticulated around climate crisis politics. Resource extractive industries are, in other words, deploying discourses of climate progress to justify ‘new’ rounds and forms of extraction (e.g. seabed mining).

As climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies remain mostly played out through the registers of techno-capitalism and driven by the combined imperatives of economic growth and political survival, the climate crisis is paradoxically exacerbating extraction.

Accounting for about 65% of all extractive revenues, fossil fuel producers have long denied climate concerns, or sought to co-opt and shape regulatory institutions and governance practices in order to (so far successfully) protect their interests. The UNEP ‘Production Gap’ report, for example, continues to point at the massive excess of future fossil fuel extraction undermining the Paris climate targets, while COVID-recovery programs are propping coal company shares.

A first concern is that the concerns of fossil fuel producers over future fossil fuel-restrictive climate politics is pushing them to accelerate the pace of extraction, in order to avoid getting their reserves stranded. Some climate politics discourses also frame extraction as a foundation of a post-carbon economy, with, for example, fossil fuel extraction industries repositioning themselves as lower-carbon fossil fuel producers (e.g. ‘zero-carbon’ oil), or fossil fuel revenues being presented as necessary for ‘financing’ an energy transition. Some fossil fuel producers promote so far questionable ‘solutions’ to influence climate crisis politics (e.g. future ‘circular carbon economy’), and have sought to prevent UNFCC Conferences of Parties from negotiating supply-side measures (e.g. managed production decline) that could more quickly phase out fossil fuels than demand-side approaches.

Beyond fossil fuels, many other extractive industry actors have promoted their ‘green’ credentials and resource-based technological solutions to climate change. Yet a vast number of socio-ecological conflicts and controversial opening up of new extractive frontiers (e.g. seabed mining) are taking place around ‘green’ resources extraction and renewable energy projects.

Beyond extractive sector-related carbon abatement narratives lies a transformed and transformative world of extraction, with tangible impacts on the realm of (im)possibilities for climate politics.

While ‘climate extractivism’ may succeed in reducing some greenhouse gas emissions, it simultaneously legitimates many harmful extractive activities and perpetuates politically and economically toxic forms of resource dependence. Put simply: reducing emissions may achieve some climate-related goals, but this may not necessarily lead to socially just and environmentally sustainable outcomes.

If managed well, a ‘green commodity’ boom—such as that of lithium or canola—and the associated revenue flows could open up development opportunities for communities and countries endowed with such minerals and metals. A major challenge, then, is to address the resulting financial, social, political, and environmental impacts resulting from a ‘green-shift’ commodity boom. Despite promises of resource-based development and contributions to a ‘low carbon future’, concerns over growing exploitation of ‘sustainable’ minerals and metals include the mismanagement of resource rents, biodiversity loss and adverse public health impacts, and poor labor standards.


A pond to extract lithium from salt in Atacama Desert, North of Chile. Credit: Diego Giudice / Alamy Stock Photo

Policy-wise, it is thus crucial that a ‘green-shift’ in resource extraction be managed to ensure positive social and environmental outcomes. There is voluminous literature on the ‘resource curse’ and much has been learned in terms of policy options and best practices over the past two decades. Learning from the past mistakes of extractivism and reforming practices is not only the responsibility of the producer countries, but of all actors involved in the value chain from the decision to extract to the final ‘green’ energy product, be it a wind turbine, battery to store solar energy, or electric engine.

From a more radical perspective, the political economic logics of climate extractivism will continue to reflect the commodifying power of capitalism, as well as the enduring dependence of many political regimes and economic bodies on resource-based value chains characterized by dispossession, coercive modes of capital accumulation, and highly unevenly distributed outcomes. For critics of mainstream approaches, more radical socio-ecological models and ‘post-growth’ climate politics challenging extractive techno-capitalism are needed.

To sum up, bringing about a safer climate future for people and the planet requires an end to harmful forms of resource extraction and extractivist development strategies. One key implication of climate extractivism is that environmentalists, researchers, and policy-makers need to address the logics, processes, and associated injustices of extractivism, helping the world not only to move beyond anthropogenic carbon emissions, but also beyond extractivist models of ‘development.’

But how could extractivism be transformed to achieve broader justice and sustainability goals, as well as emissions targets? The gamut of solutions ranges from economic diversification for resource dependent, circular economies, and degrowth approaches to societal and planetary well-being.

In all cases, the pathways to a ‘post-extractivist’ climate future will demand major shifts in power relations across borders, class, gender, race, and human/non-human divides.

How to cite this page:

Le Billon, P. (2021). Climate Extractivism: Avoiding The Pitfalls Of Extraction-Based Decarbonization. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/climate-extractivism. https://doi.org/10.54823/xe60dgxx


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