Three Quarters of Fossil Fuels "Need To Stay In The Ground"

"No Coal" protest in New Westminster

The solution to climate change may be complex, but the problem is clear: we are burning too much carbon and we don't have much time left to wean ourselves off it.

Followers of Running On Climate's Twitter account will have seen a number of Tweets about the carbon bubble, a reference to all the stranded assets on the books of coal, oil and natural gas corporations that have yet to be priced down by stock markets.

It was the financial analysts behind Carbon Tracker that put the carbon bubble on the map with their Unburnable Carbon report. Only around 20% of the planet's existing reserves of fossil fuels can be burned if we want to prevent temperatures rising above the IPCC's safe limit of 2 degrees Celsius, they said.

Former NASA scientist James Hansen, and others, have suggested 2 degrees is too high a temperature rise to be safe as it does not account for "slow feedbacks such as reduction of ice sheet size with global warming or release of greenhouse gases from thawing tundra".

However, even the more conservative IPCC target looks like a mountain to climb given how little action is being taken to mitigate our emissions.

There was almost a note of desperation coming from the UN’s top climate change official Christiana Figueres when she addressed the oil and gas industry on Thursday:

“If we are to stay within the internationally agreed 2 degrees Celsius maximum global average temperature rise, there is no doubt that we must, we have to, stay within a finite, cumulative amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

We have already used more than half of that budget. This means that three quarters of the fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, and the fossil fuels we do use must be utilized sparingly and responsibly.”

Ms Figueres admonished the industry for not doing enough to combat climate change:

“The time for experimentation, for marginal changes and for conditional response is now over. It is time for the oil and gas industry to truly lead with a principled response that ensures its appropriate and profitable participation in the energy mix of the future”...

Oil and gas can preserve their legacy as enablers of growth. Legacy implies solutions that persist over time. We must look past the next quarter, past the end of the decade, into the second half of the century by which time the global economy must be carbon neutral”

Scientists at the IPCC tell us that for a "likely chance" (over 66%) of achieving the 2 degree target we have a budget of around 250Gt of carbon. In other words, since we are using 10Gt a year, the planet has until 2038 before we've exhausted our carbon budget at current rates of depletion.

For its part, the fossil fuel industry is unlikely to make the kind of changes that are needed to stay under the 2C rise. Exxon Mobil, for example, continues to spend millions in exploring for more reserves.

Canada is particularly vulnerable to a bursting of the carbon bubble. Marc Lee, analyst at The Progressive Economics Forum, has calculated a number of scenarios for Canada's share of the remaining carbon budget. Lee extrapolates the possible carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions budget for Canada where there is an 80% chance of staying below 2 degrees. Lee then calculated what percentage of fossil fuel reserves in Canada would need to stay in the ground.

"Using the 500 Gt budget, we estimated a Canadian carbon budget of 9 Gt based on share of global GDP, and 2.4 Gt based on share of population. That said, I inflated the plausible upper limit to 20 Gt because of Canada’s role as a fossil fuel exporter. But even if we take the biggest carbon budget of 20 Gt, 78% of proven reserves and 89% of proven-plus-probable reserves would need to stay underground."

(Lee explains the carbon budget in more depth here.)

On the other side of the coin, corporations, who have already spent $100 billion in mining the Alberta tarsands, are projected to invest a further $350 billion by 2050 in more extraction activity.

The government of Canada has facilitated all this, by unceremoniously dumping our GHG targets at the roadside as we race full throttle in our extraction of those fossil fuels.

Something's gotta give.