Study shows keeping most coal in the ground is the only way to contain climate change


For the first time a study has pinpointed exactly which fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground to contain global warming to the safe limit of 2DegC. Research published Wednesday the journal Nature, shows that 88 percent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to “avoid dangerous climate change.” Additionally, the research shows that more than half of the world’s gas reserves are unburnable and 35 percent of the world’s oil reserves must be left unused to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The study also concluded that investments in carbon capture technologies will have only a minimum impact on reducing climate emissions. From a regional standpoint, the Nature study found that most Canada’s tar sands and the 100 billion barrels of oil estimated to exist in the Arctic need to go untouched, while Australia, Europe and the US have to each keep about 90 percent of their coal reserves in the ground. This regional breakdown provides a clear blueprint for how governments can craft policies that advance the ongoing shift away from dirty energy sources and towards renewable ones.


RT @carbonbrief New paper: To avoid dangerous #climatechange we need to leave fossil fuel in the ground –

Key Points

  • Containing global temperature rise to safe levels means keeping massive quantities  of coal, oil and gas in the ground. 88 percent of the world’s known coal reserves, 52 per cent of gas and 35 per cent of oil must be left untouched if the world is going to contain temperature increases to the internationally agreed upon threshold of 2DegC according to a groundbreaking analysis published this week in Nature.
  • When it comes to damaging the planet, no energy source is more destructive than coal. Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, driving climate change and generating air pollution that prematurely kills 7 million people annually. To contain global warming to 2DegC, coal faces the most restrictive future: Russia and the US can burn just five percent of their coal reserves, and Europe can burn just over 10 percent of its known reserves.
  • Containing the world’s warming to safe levels means swiftly transitioning to renewable energy and away from dirty, extreme and unconventional energy sources in all parts of the world. This study shows that containing the world’s warming to safe levels in a cost-effective way means leaving 100 percent of “unconventional” oil and 82 percent of “unconventional” gas resources in the ground. That means Canada’s tar sands and all of the oil in the Arctic  would need to go untouched. The research also shows that attempts to capture and sequester carbon sources will have a “minimal” impact on efforts to contain global warming.


This lengthy study, published in Nature, and entitled The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C uses a single integrated assessment model containing estimates of the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources, and which is shown to be consistent with a wide variety of modelling approaches with different assumptions, to explore the implications of this emissions limit for fossil fuel production in different regions. The results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 percent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2DegC. The study shows that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2DegC. Furthermore, the results show that policy makers’ instincts to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels are, in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments to this temperature limit.

In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated how much carbon the world can emit and still maintain a reasonable chance of limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This is known as a carbon budget. Two degrees is the internationally-accepted point beyond which climate change risks become unacceptably high.

From a regional perspective, this report finds that the Middle East holds half of total global unburnable oil and gas reserves. This “unburnable” fraction equates to two thirds of the region’s gas and 38 per cent of oil reserves. Russia accounts for another third of the world’s total unburnable gas. Across borders coal poses the biggest threat to containing the world’s warming. The analysis shows that Russia and the US could burn just five percent or less of their coal reserves, and Europe must keep 89 percent of its known coal reserves in the ground. China has to keep 77 percent of its coal reserves in the ground according to this study.

Oil and gas reserves also have to be overwhelmingly kept in the ground. When it comes to oil, 75 percent of Canada’s reserves have to be left untouched, 40 percent of Latin American oil reserves must be left untouched, a similar number exists for the Middle East and nearly 45 percent of oil reserves in the Pacific, which includes Australia, must be kept off limits if a 2DegC world is to be ensured. When it comes to natural gas, hlf of China and India’s gas have been identified as “unburnable” this is comparable to numbers in Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific region.

The analysis also examined unconventional energy reserves and concluded that Canada’s tar sands and the 100 billion barrels of oil estimated to exist in the Arctic would need to go untouched.Today’s research suggests that just one quarter of Europe’s unconventional gas resources could feasibly be exploited while still remaining below two degrees. This includes shale gas, tight gas and coal-bed methane. The research also found that technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions before they reach the atmosphere would only have a “limited impact” on the proportion of fossil fuels that can be burned. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) would allow just six percent more of the world’s known coal reserves to be burned, with an even lower figure for oil and gas.



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  • “I think the most sobering thing from this study is the gulf that it reveals between the declared intention of the politicians and the policy-makers to stick to two degrees, and their willingness to actually contemplate what needs to be done if that is to be even remotely achieved.” – Paul Ekins, co-author of the study
  • “One might ask why they’re doing this when there’s more in the ground than we can afford to burn, and that money might be better spent.” – Paul Ekins, co-author of the study
  • “We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2C temperature limit.” – Christophe McGlade, co-author of the study
  • “One lesson of this work is unmistakably obvious: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. These numbers show that unconventional and ‘extreme’ fossil fuel – Canada’s tar sands, for instance – simply have to stay in the ground.” – Bill McKibben, co-founder of

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