Fossil Fuels Must Stay Unearthed, Study Shows

Photo courtesy of martin via Flickr

To keep global temperatures from rising, a large proportion of buried fossil fuels  may have to stay that way, one study says.

The research, published by University College London researchers in the journal Nature, is the first ever analysis to identify which existing fossil fuels (coal, gas, and oil) should not be burned.

The results may be less than pleasing for energy companies and fossil-fuel rich regions, but critical in keeping the global temperature from reaching catastrophic levels.

The research

According to the assessment, it’s been acknowledged by policy makers that global temperatures should not exceed 2C (3.6 F) — a safety limit agreed upon by United Nations members.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”kxMsJsoS83rWQYwZQCIZAkJCP8I5E67J”]This isn’t all news, as the World Energy Outlook 2012 stated that only one-third of fossil fuels can be consumed before 2050 if the world is to achieve its 2C goal.

This new research, however, pinpoints trillions of dollars worth of known and extractable reserves which will have to remain untouched to have even a 50 percent chance of meeting our limit.

Image courtesy of Carbon Visuals via Flickr.

Of global reserves, the percentages of which cannot be burned between now and 2050 are:

  • 82 percent of coal reserves
  • 49 percent of gas reserves
  • 33 percent of oil reserves

Most of America’s coal is now unburnable, but only four and six percent of its oil and gas respectively will need to be abandoned. Significantly more oil and gas in the Middle East, Russia, China and India is unusable.

Some illuminating facts from the study include:

  • The extraction of “unconventional and extreme fossil fuels,” including all Canadian tar sand and Arctic oil reserves, is not compatible with a 2C heating limit.
  • Leaving reserves untouched will be bad for companies that own the reserves, including Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Exxaro (which own huge coal reserves) and Lukoil, Exxon Mobil, BP, Gazprom and Chevron (which own massive oil and gas reserves).
  • It may also be bad news for investors, who are being advised to dump their fossil fuel stocks.
  • Private and government investing in new fossil fuel discovery, which cost $670 billion in 2013, are called into question for spending money finding fuels they can’t afford to exploit.
  • The study also finds that technology to capture and bury carbon emissions (CCS) would make very little difference to the amount of fossil fuels deemed unburnable.

The takeaway

According to this study, there are inconsistencies between nations’ commitment to keeping a 2C warming limit and their current efforts to find and exploit fossil fuels. For instance, if one reserve is considered economically viable, that means that another somewhere must be abandoned in order to keep within the carbon budget.

Writers at the Guardian also warn that an over-valuation of unexploitable fossil fuels could lead to a “carbon bubble,” putting the world at risk of financial crisis if they become devalued.

When countries meet in December 2015 for the UN climate summit in Paris, a global deal could in theory be proposed to keep most fossil fuels in the ground. Economic benefits, however, are still at odds with climate goals.

If such a deal is signed, climate economist Michael Jakob tells the Guardian, it would be good for the climate as well as alternative energy industries like solar and biofuel, but losers (companies, investors, and fuel-rich nations) will have to be compensated or forced to realign their priorities.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert