Most of the planet’s fossil fuel reserves must remain underground if we want the world to have at least half the chance of reaching its most ambitious climate goals.
A new study published in the journal Nature shows that 60 percent of oil and natural gas and 90 percent of coal must remain untreated and unused until 2050 for the world to have at least a 50 percent chance of not warming the planet by more than 1.5 degrees celsius.
These findings are largely consistent with those from several recent reports from the United Nations, International Energy Agency, and other organizations that provided evidence for an immediate significant reduction in fossil fuel production is absolutely necessary to move towards limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Dan Welsby, University College London researcher and lead author of the study at a press conference stated that all provided evidence pointed that dramatic cuts in fossil fuel production are required immediately in order to move towards limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries aim to keep rising global temperatures within 2°C of pre-industrial levels and 1.5°C if possible.
Research shows that the effects of climate change (melting ice, rising sea levels, more extreme weather conditions) will be worse at 2°C than at 1.5°C, and even worse at higher temperatures. These goals are an attempt to minimize the impact of global warming.
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However, research is increasingly showing that the 1.5°C target is getting closer and closer. Since the beginning of the industrial era, which began about 150 years ago, the world has already warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius.
The historic United Nations report on climate change, released last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that the 1.5°C mark could be reached within two decades.
The UN report says that with a 50 percent chance of hitting a target, the world can only emit about 460 billion metric tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
That is another 12 years or so of emissions at the current emission rate. This means that global carbon emissions must be drastically and immediately reduced to meet the target.
A new study published by four researchers from University College London paints an equally imminent picture. But look at the future from a different angle.
Rather than calculating emissions against the 1.5°C target, the report calculates how much fossil fuel reserves should remain untapped. The study began with a carbon budget of around 580 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
It is developed on the 2018 IPCC report that focused on the 1.5°C target (the latest report points to a much smaller budget). The researchers then used a dedicated model to model how the world’s energy systems could evolve over the next several decades to stay within that budget.
For example, simulations indicate a rapid transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. The model also suggests that significant amounts of carbon dioxide will be removed in the future using various technologies to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
James Price, another study author, said that even with these assumptions, the limited carbon budget was “essentially the maximum limit that our model could solve.” The model tries to adhere to realistic limits on costs and the rate at which the global economy can reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
The model assumed that a sharp reduction in fossil fuel production would be required between now and 2050 to reach the 1.5 °C target. For certain fossil fuels in certain parts of the world, the model showed that production should have peaked. For others, production should immediately begin to decline.
For example, for all regions of the world, the study shows that coal production has already peaked. Oil production in all regions was supposed to peak now or by at least 2025. For natural gas, the regional picture is more complex.
In many European countries, for example in the United States and Russia, gas production by now should reach its peak. On the other hand, gas production may continue for some time in other parts of the world.
In the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia, gas production may increase until the 2030s, before it starts to decline. The study found that total oil and gas production should decline by about 3 percent annually until 2050.
Many regions with the largest reserves of fossil fuel must store a relatively large portion of these resources in the soil. Canada, for example, must keep 83 percent of its recoverable oil underground, compared with about 38 percent in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
In the United States, a study suggests that 31 percent of oil reserves (Fossil Fuel), 52 percent of natural gas, and 97 percent of coal should remain in the ground. These cuts are really amazing. But the authors caution that the study likely underestimated the problem.
First, the study only looks at what needs to be done to have a 50 percent chance of hitting the 1.5 °C target. Better odds require more decisive action. The study also suggests that the carbon budget is higher, which means it allows for more carbon emissions than the latest UN report suggests.
The model used in the study also suggests removing significant amounts of carbon dioxide in the future, relying on technologies that many scientists remain skeptical about.
Can Fossil Fuel production be reduced?
“It is definitely technically feasible,” Welsby said. But he warned that for now, “our global plans and operating paths for fossil fuels are heading in a completely wrong direction.” “It’s really about having the political will to resist the temptation to get every last drop of fossil fuels, so to speak, and focus on aggressively stimulating the low-carbon economy. This is certainly possible, but in fact, it has to do with the politics of the situation,” Price added.