Majority of the world’s oil and gas must stay in the ground, study says

Neil Ever Osborne and M.A. Jacquemain

More than 80 per cent of coal, gas, and oil reserves, especially deposits located in the Alberta tar sands, should be left buried.

The bulk of global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if the climate crisis is to be abated, according to a new study.

The analysis found that to maintain at least a 50 per cent chance of holding global temperature rise to below 1.5°C, large percentages of oil, gas, and coal cannot be withdrawn from reserves.

As much as 90 per cent of coal and more than half of worldwide oil and gas supplies are unextractable, the study estimates, if we are to meet the 1.5°C goal. Modelling shows this will require a decline in global oil and gas production by 3 per cent annually until 2050, seeing many regions reach peak production within the coming decade or even sooner.

“The IPCC report has made it clear that in order to stabilize temperature at about 1.5°C, global carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced rapidly and reach net zero by mid-century,” Greg Flato of the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis told The Weather Network. “This necessarily means a rapid reduction in fossil fuel consumption.”

pumpjack (Mark Segal/ DigitalVision/ Getty Images)

An oil well in Maricopa, California, USA. (Mark Segal/ DigitalVision/ Getty Images)

The study underlines the gulf between the planned growth in fossil fuel extraction and the climate actions agreed to in the Paris Agreement and deemed necessary in the latest IPCC report. While fossil fuel companies and countries are collectively planning production increases of 2 per cent a year, reports from the IEA and the UN are unanimous in calling for the drastic reduction in the development of oil, gas, and coal to avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.

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“We know there are already enough proven fossil reserves to cook the planet if we burn them all. It makes perfect sense that if our target is 1.5°C, we need to leave even more in the ground,” Rob Jackson, Professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University, told The Weather Network.

A challenge to meeting these goals will be that certain countries would need to leave more fossil fuel reserves in the ground than others. For example, Russia and the former Soviet states would be required to let lie 97 per cent of their coal reserves, while Europe and the South American countries would have to leave almost three quarters of their oil supplies.

Canada would be particularly called upon to abandon large majorities of reserves, more than 80 per cent of coal, gas, and oil, especially deposits located in the Alberta tar sands. The economic hit certain regions will face may prove a steep political obstacle.

coal miners (Monty Rakusen/ Image Source/ Getty Images)

Miners standing on a pile of coal in Scotland. (Monty Rakusen/ Image Source/ Getty Images)

“The political priorities in certain parts of Canada would make such a goal hard to implement,” said Damon Matthews, Professor and Concordia Research Chair in Climate Science. “The idea of leaving fossil fuels in the ground is not so politically unpalatable in [other] parts of Canada — [recently] Quebec’s minister of energy and natural resources floated the idea of banning fossil fuel extraction in Quebec. The global market for oil and gas is shifting dramatically, and we may not have a choice in the long run,” Matthews said.

The future of the fossil fuel industry will be threatened, the analysis has found. Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, warned as far back as 2019 that companies not adequately reducing carbon emissions would be punished by shareholders. This threat is more serious; the study noted that the outlook for the fossil fuel industry is “bleak,” and that states with economies reliant on fossil fuels must swiftly diversify into other sectors.

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“In many parts of the world the writing is on the wall that new fossil fuel infrastructure is not a good investment,” said Matthews.

But there could be unplanned fallout if these threats become realized. “The last thing we want is a fire-sale on fossil fuels—a race by companies and countries to burn their oil, natural gas, and coal reserves quickly to make sure they get something for them,” said Jackson.

Some observers believe that fossil fuel emissions will surpass the carbon budget of 1.5°C. “Oil and natural gas use is still rising globally,” said Jackson. “Only for coal are we already seeing a decline. Reducing fossil fuel use by 3 per cent every year will be very challenging.” The report sees promise in the fact that coal production has already peaked (in 2013) and that oil is nearing its peak in many regions.

Others suggest emissions may be partly offset by carbon dioxide removals and reduction in energy demands.

“The fossil fuel industry holds a lot of hope for the application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to allow for continued use of fossil fuels while avoiding most of the emissions associated with them,” said Mason Inman, Gas & Oil Program Director at Global Energy Monitor.

“However, most of today’s uses of oil and gas are not amenable to CCS. Oil is predominantly used for transportation—cars, trucks, airplanes, ships—and none of those uses can have CCS applied to them. Similarly, a large share of natural gas use is for building heating, and it is not practical to try to apply CCS at the building scale,” Inman said.

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Progress will also be made because of the declining price of renewables in the energy and transportation sectors, interventions like government subsidies, and international net-zero alliances, like the one forged this year between Denmark and Costa Rica.

“The transition away from fossil fuels is well underway, with costs for clean electricity and batteries dropping rapidly, and sales of electric vehicles increasing rapidly,” said Inman. “There is certainly a long way to go, but there are many hopeful signs.”

Thumbnail credit: Максим Шмаков/ iStock/ Getty Images Plus