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A new report has a clear message for the world, and for Canada: We must leave the majority of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Canada must leave most of its fossil fuels in the ground to help world avoid climate catastrophe

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, January 8, 2015, 7:14 PM - When it comes to avoiding the worst effects of climate change, a new report draws a line in the sand - or the oil sands, in the case of Canada.

According to the report, penned by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, from the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London, "globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the [global warming] target of 2oC."

What does this mean for Canada?

McGlade and Ekins have very specific recommendations for Canada's oil, gas and coal. Based on their study, nearly three-quarters of the nation's oil and coal reserves and just under one-quarter of the available natural gas must remain untapped and in the ground.

Credit: McGlade/Ekins/Nature14016

However, that's only if methods of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are implemented, to limit the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. If CCS methods are not implemented, the restrictions become even more tight, requiring Canada to leave 75 per cent of its oil, 30 per cent of its gas and over 80 per cent of its coal reserves untouched.

The reason why Canada's oil figures are so high, compared to the rest of the world, is that most of the nation's reserves are locked up in the sands of northern Alberta. Fuel derived from this heavy, bitumen oil is considered to have the highest carbon footprint (somewhere between 12 and 40 per cent higher than conventional oil), due to the fact that the extraction process takes up so much energy. Since it is also the most expensive form of oil to extract, McGlade and Ekins note that production may decline simply due to the costs involved, so that this open pit mining drops to negligible levels by 2020. To help meet the 2oC goal, though, the industry would have to reduce the amount of carbon-emitting energy they use over time, so that they were solely dependent on biomass and renewables (solar, wind and nuclear).

RELATED: Now is the time for Canada to take action on climate change

What if the rest of the world does not follow suit?

This has been a major concern for years, especially with the biggest emitters largely sitting on the sidelines during climate talks and deal-making. However, the situation is very different now.

Even as 2014 was wrapping up, two of the biggest emitters in the world - the United States and China - had already made solid commitments to each other, and to the world, to address their carbon emissions.

In 2015, these commitments are even more important, and the rest of the world needs to get on board with this process, as the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris is going to set the stage for a new climate deal, that may just be what we need to save us from ourselves.

"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," McGlade said in a press release.

"Policy makers must realize that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2oC goal," he added. "If they go ahead with developing their own resources, they must be asked which reserves elsewhere should remain unburnt in order for the carbon budget not to be exceeded."

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