Carbon targets and burning fossil fuels are incompatible

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Researchers from University College London have published modeling work that has led to the conclusion that at least 80% of coal, 50% of oil and 30% of gas reserves are “unburnable” if global warming is to be limited to 2oC.

The researchers said: “policy makers must realise that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2oC goal.”

The new study uses models to estimate how much coal, oil and gas must go unburned up to 2050 and where it can be extracted to stay within the 2oC target, regarded as the threshold for dangerous climate change:

  • the Middle East would need to leave about 260 thousand million barrels (40%) of its oil and 60% of its gas underground;
  • the majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States would have to remain unused;
  • undeveloped resources of unconventional gas, such as shale gas, would be off limits in Africa and the Middle East, and very little could be exploited in India and China; and
  • unconventional oil, such as Canada’s tar sands, would be unviable.

The researchers also suggest that development of unconventional oil (which is harder to extract) and the Antarctic region would be out of line with efforts to limit temperature rise. There are difficult questions arising from the work for fossil fuel developers in terms of future investment plans, particularly if policies are implemented to limit temperature increases and, possibly, fossil fuel production.

Past research has found that burning all of the world’s fossil fuel resources would release three times more carbon than that required to keep warming to no more than 2oC.

Carbon capture and storage would have only “a relatively modest effect” on how much fossil fuels can be used because of its expense and late introduction, the scientists added.

Time will show whether governments’ economic and energy security demands will simply mean that carbon targets are ignored.

For more information, help or advice please contact Andrew Davison on 0191 211 7950.