Study identifies which fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change

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A third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves globally should remain in the ground 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 and so sets out the regions that stand to lose most from achieving the 2°C goal.

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 260 thousand 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.

For the study, the scientists first developed an innovative method for estimating the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources. 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. The model, which uses an internationally-recognised modeling framework, has multiple improvements on previous models, allowing it to provide a world-leading representation of the long-term production dynamics and resource potential of fossil fuels. 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.”

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 2oC limit, especially as new discoveries cannot lead to increased aggregate production.”

The scientists’ analysis shows that their results are consistent with a wide variety of alternative modeling approaches from groups across the world with differing assumptions. Building on this analysis, their future work aims to investigate further the shifts in cumulative fossil fuel production between scenarios that lead to different long-term average global temperature rises. Now that’s a Story to Watch.

Rebecca Caygill

Originally published 
by UCL
January 7, 2015

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    By: Rebecca Caygill (UCL Press Office)

    UK Energy Research Centre
    The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) is funded by the UK Research Councils’ Energy programme. Founded in 2003, it entered its third phase of work in May 2013. UKERC’s current Director is Professor Jim Watson; its Deputy Director is Professor Paul Ekins, who has been a Co-Director of UKERC since its establishment. Dr Rebecca Caygill in the UCL press office.

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