Scientists and yes, that includes oil company geologists, have known this for a long time. But they just kept plugging and pulling in the cash. What are the odds that anyone will actually pay attention now?
Vast amounts of oil in the Middle East, coal in the US, Australia and China and many other fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground to prevent dangerous climate change, according to the first analysis to identify which existing reserves cannot be burned.
The new work reveals the profound geopolitical and economic implications of tackling global warming for both countries and major companies that are reliant on fossil fuel wealth. It shows trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas, including most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas and much potential shale gas, cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the 2C safety limit agreed by the world’s nations. Currently, the world is heading for a catastrophic 5C of warming and the deadline to seal a global climate deal comes in December at a crunch UN summit in Paris.
“We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2C temperature limit,” said Christophe McGlade, at University College London (UCL), and who led the new research published in the journal Nature. The work, using detailed data and well-established economic models, assumed cost effective climate policies would use the cheapest fossil fuels first, with more expensive fuels priced out of a world in which carbon emissions were strictly limited. For example, the model predicts that significant cheap-to-produce conventional oil would be burned but that the carbon limit would be reached before more expensive tar sands oil could be used.
It was already known that there is about three times more fossil fuel in reserves that could be exploited today than is compatible with 2C, and over 10 times more fossil fuel resource that could be exploited in future. But the new study is the first to reveal which fuels from which countries would have to be abandoned. It also shows that technology to capture and bury carbon emissions, touted by some as a way to continue substantial fossil fuel use in power stations, makes surprisingly little difference to the amount of coal, oil and gas deemed unburnable.
Major fossil fuel companies face the risk that significant parts of their reserves will become worthless, with Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Exxaro owning huge coal reserves and Lukoil, Exxon Mobil, BP, Gazprom and Chevron owning massive oil and gas reserves.