Study recommends keeping massive fossil fuel reserves in the ground

The first study to identify which fossil fuels should stay in the ground to keep the global temperature rise below 2ºC has recommended that a third of the planet’s oil reserves, half of all gas reserves and more than 80% of all coal reserves should remain untouched.

The research, by the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources, has been published in Nature. “We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2ºC temperature limit,” said UCL’s Christophe McGlade, who led the research. 

The authors recommend that 82% of the world coal should be left in the ground, including 90% or more of the reserves in the US, Russia and Australia and 66% in China and India. In addition 50% of global gas reserves should remain unburned, although with regional variations – it recommends the Middle East and Russia leave large quantities undisturbed while the US and Europe can use 90% of their reserves or more to replace coal and provide power to their cities.

The scientists developed an innovative method to assess the quantities and locations of the fossil fuel reserves. They then modelled how much of these reserves, along with low-carbon energy sources, should be used to meet the world’s energy needs up to 2050.  

The report says one third of oil reserves should stay untouched – with the Middle East required to leave 260 billion barrels of oil underground, the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s entire oil reserve. It further recommends that production in Canada’s oil sands fall to “negligible” levels by 2020. Drilling in the Arctic is also found to be inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change.

UCL’s Professor Paul Ekins, who conducted the research with McGlade, said: “In 2013, fossil fuel companies spent some $670 billion on exploring for new oil and gas resources. One might ask why they are doing this when there is more in the ground than we can afford to burn.”   


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