Most fossil fuels ‘unburnable’ under 2C climate target

fossil fuels 'unburnable'

Creative Commons: Robert S Donovan, 2014

For the first time a study has pinpointed exactly which fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground to contain global warming below the internationally danger threshold of 2C.

Research published Wednesday the journal Nature, is a stark reminder that limiting global temperature rise means keeping massive quantities of coal, oil and gas in the ground.

Paul Ekins, co-author of the study said:

I think the most sobering thing from this study is the gulf that it reveals between the declared intention of the politicians and the policy-makers to stick to two degrees, and their willingness to actually contemplate what needs to be done if that is to be even remotely achieved.

Coal, the world’s most polluting fossil fuel, driving climate change and generating air pollution that prematurely kills 7 million people annually, is also the most at risk, according to the study.

To contain global warming to 2C, coal faces the most restrictive future: Russia and the US can burn just 5% of their coal reserves, and Europe can burn just over 10% of its known reserves.

Globally, 88% of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to “avoid dangerous climate change.”

Additionally, more than half of the world’s gas reserves are unburnable and 35% of the world’s oil reserves must be left unused to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The latest research concluded that investments in carbon capture technologies will have only a minimum impact on reducing climate emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature, shows that containing the world’s warming to safe levels in a cost-effective way means leaving 100% of “unconventional” oil and 82% of “unconventional” gas resources in the ground.

That means Canada’s tar sands and the 100 billion barrels of oil estimated to exist in the Arctic need to go untouched.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org said:

One lesson of this work is unmistakably obvious: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. These numbers show that unconventional and ‘extreme’ fossil fuel – Canada’s tar sands, for instance – simply have to stay in the ground.

In Australia, Europe and the US have to each keep about 90% of their coal reserves in the ground.

The Middle East holds half of total global unburnable oil and gas reserves. This “unburnable” fraction equates to two thirds of the region’s gas and 38 per cent of oil reserves.

Russia accounts for another third of the world’s total unburnable gas.

James Leaton, Research Director of Carbon Tracker, said:

The research confirms that expensive coal, oil sands, Arctic and unconventionals are beyond the carbon budget. It is a reminder that companies need to justify spending more capital on high-cost projects given the clear direction of travel towards a low carbon economy.

This global breakdown provides a clear blueprint for how governments can craft policies that advance the on-going shift away from dirty energy sources and towards renewable ones.

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