According to a new study, the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuels are effectively “unextractable” and must remain in the ground if we are to have at least a 50% chance of achieving our climate goals.
For nations like Indonesia and Australia, the world’s leading coal exporters, they will need to abandon 95% of their natural deposits by 2050, according to calculations by researchers at University College London.
In the same period, Middle Eastern nations will have to leave all their coal reserves in the ground and the United States will have to leave 97% of its fossil fuel reserves untouched.
These are the main regions that need to cut their work, but of course a global effort is needed.
Worldwide, nearly 90% of all coal reserves will need to remain in the ground over the next three decades, including 76% in China and India. Any removal greater than that and this fossil fuel could easily heat the planet to more than 1.5°C, scientists warn.
All fossil fuels are warming the planet
It’s not just coal that we need to worry about. While we are dealing with this particular fossil fuel, the world must also stop 60% of its oil and methane gas extractions.
Canada, for example, will have to leave 83% of its oil in the ground by 2050 and 81% of its methane gas.
Even if the world manages to achieve all three of these goals, which is already a big challenge, researchers estimate that we have only a 50% chance of keeping global temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold.
Realistic or pessimistic climate model?
One of our best climate scenarios, it seems, boils down to the statistical toss of a coin.
And, in all probability, this is still very little. The published study’s model, for example, does not take into account any possible feedback system that could trigger a lot of new carbon emissions sooner than we assume.
Also, if we want to give ourselves a better than 50% chance of staying at 1.5 °C, we need to keep even more carbon in the ground.
“The dismal picture painted by our scenarios for the global fossil fuel industry is most likely an underestimation of what is needed and, as a result, production would need to be reduced even more quickly,” the authors write.
Obviously, it’s hard to predict what the future will be like. Some scientists think that the release of renewable energy and the possibility of carbon capture could allow us to persist in using fossil fuels, at least to some extent, but this view remains highly controversial, especially since we don’t yet have the technology for it.
After 2050, the authors say that the only situation in which we should still use fossil fuels is aviation and feedstock for the petrochemical industry.
If this global energy transition is not achieved by 2050, not only will we suffer a worse climate crisis, but some countries could suffer huge losses and go bankrupt.
There’s a lot at stake, and there’s no more time to waste. The authors argue that nations around the world need to start crafting domestic policies that restrict fossil fuel production and reduce demand, whether through subsidies, taxes, bans on new exploration or penalties for polluters.
It is critical that we find an economically viable way to keep fossil fuels buried in the ground, as this is now the only sure way to save lives and livelihoods.