To limit warming to 1.5°C, huge amounts of fossil fuels need to go unused

To limit warming to 1.5°C, huge amounts of fossil fuels need to go unused

Image of an oil well and its associated hardware.Enlarge / To reach our climate goals, we’ll need to stop building these.

A massive amount of fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground if the world is to reach its goal of limiting temperature increase to 1.5ºC, a new study shows. A paper from faculty members at the University College London uses modeling to decipher what would need to happen for a 50 percent chance of reaching this climate goal, concluding that a lot of our fossil energy reserves will have to stay in the ground. The paper further explores the consequences for the countries, businesses, and people involved.

In 2015, 196 parties signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which is aimed at keeping global average temperatures under 2ºC, with 1.5ºC as the preferred target. Since then, documents like the International Panel on Climate Change’s report on reaching 1.5ºC have indicated that the world needs to start cutting fossil fuels now to reach this target.

The new paper reaffirms the notion that we need immediate, sharp declines in emissions. The study builds on a piece of research from 2015 that looked at the possibility of hitting the 2ºC goal. The earlier work used modeling to suggest that, globally, one-third of all oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and more than 80 percent of coal reserves need to remain unused to reach the goal. The new UCL paper’s recommendations are even stricter.

“We believe our new paper adds further weight to recent research indicating that global oil and fossil methane gas production needs to peak now,” Dan Welsby, a UCL researcher and co-author of the new report, said at a press conference.


A 50/50 chance

According to the new research, nearly 60 percent of existing oil and fossil methane gas and 90 percent of global coal reserves need to go unused through at least 2050—and this action would only yield a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC. These reductions mean that many fossil fuel projects around the world, both planned and existing, would need to be halted. Further, oil and gas production needs to decline by 3 percent every year until 2050. This also means that most regions in the world need to reach their peak production now or within the next decade.


The paper further notes that the production changes it presents are likely underestimated. Some of this is because the model accounts for negative emission technologies such as carbon capture and storage, even though there are doubts about how quickly these systems will be deployed. And, of course, to reach better-than-even odds of limiting the world’s warming to 1.5ºC, more carbon must go unused.

The necessary emission cuts have yet to materialize. For example, a 2019 UN report stated that the world’s governments expect to produce 120 percent more fossil fuels by 2030. “[T]he current and indicated fossil fuel trajectories globally are moving us in the wrong direction,” Welsby said.

Around the world

The research breaks the world down by region. Within these different areas, the necessary cuts to emissions and production vary. For example, by 2050, 83 percent of Canada’s existing fossil fuel reserves will need to remain untapped, in part because its production costs are high. “Additionally, we found that all undeveloped Arctic resources need to stay in the ground,” Welsby said.

These changes would be a hard pill to swallow for countries that produce or rely on oil and coal and the companies that extract and sell them, as limiting warming to 1.5ºC could involve moratoriums on production and carbon pricing. Steve Pye, an associate professor at UCL and another author of the paper, told a press conference that producers and investors need to recognize that future investments are not compatible with reaching the world’s emissions goals. However, the research notes that industry players should be supported as they transition.

There are also developing countries that are still highly dependent on these greenhouse-gas emitting revenues. The paper argues that developed countries should help developing countries support transitioning to greener industries. “This needs to be seen very much as a just transition that aids those most dependent and least able to shift away,” Pye said.

There is some hope, however. The price of renewables—particularly wind and solar—is decreasing, and electric vehicles are becoming more viable. James Pryce, a UCL research associate and co-author of the paper, said that achieving the goal of limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible from a technical perspective. “It really is a case of having the political will to resist the temptation of extracting every last bit of fossil fuel,” he told the press conference.

Nature, 2021. DOI:10.1038/s41586-021-03821-8 (About DOIs)

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