Why we must leave fossil fuels untouched
British scientists have warned that most of the world's fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if dangerous levels of global warming are to be avoided.
Over 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil reserves are "unburnable" and not be used before 2050 if global warming is to stay below the 2°C target agreed by policy makers, according to new research by the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources.
The study funded by the UK Energy Research Centre also identifies the geographic location of existing reserves that should remain unused.
The authors show that the overwhelming majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States should remain unused along with over 2,60,000 million barrels oil reserves in the Middle East, equivalent to all of the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia. The Middle East should also leave over 60% of its gas reserves in the ground.
The development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil — oil of a poor quality which is hard to extract — are also found to be inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change.
The scientists first developed an innovative method for estimating the quantities, locations and nature of the world's oil, gas and coal reserves. They then used an integrated assessment model to explore which of these along with low-carbon energy sources should be used up to 2050 to meet the world's energy needs.
Lead author Dr Christophe McGlade said, "We've now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2°C temperature limit. Policy makers must realize that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2°C goal. If they go ahead with developing their own resources, they must be asked which reserves elsewhere should remain unburnt in order for the carbon budget not to be exceeded."
Co-author Professor Paul Ekins said, "Companies spent over $670 billion (£430 billion) last year searching for and developing new fossil fuel resources. They will need to rethink such substantial budgets if policies are implemented to support the limit, especially as new discoveries cannot lead to increased aggregate production."