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What the numbers tell us about how much fossil fuel reserves...

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/keep-it-in-the-grou...

What the numbers tell us about how much


fossil fuel reserves we can't burn
Duncan Clark
The much-quoted three numbers of climate change have raised awareness of the
simple fact theres far more fossil fuel than we can burn and the more we extract, the
greater the risk of climate catastrophe but they dont tell us the whole story
Wednesday 25 March 2015 14.36GMT

he world is gradually waking up to true nature of the climate change


conundrum, and not a moment too soon. The situation boils down to this:
fossil fuel is immensely useful, valuable and politically important, yet if we
want to avoid taking unacceptable risks with the planet we need to leave most
of that fuel in the ground either forever or at least until theres an aordable and
scalable way to stop the exhaust gases building up in the atmosphere.
Many of us have been saying this for years (I co-wrote a book about it) but much of
the credit for the increased awareness of the need to leave the fuel in the ground
goes to Bill McKibben, whose brilliant and much-read article in Rolling Stone claried
for many readers the simple and crucial fact that there is far more carbon in existing
fossil fuel reserves than we can safely burn.
So far so good, but McKibbens article has been so inuential that the very specic
numbers it contains are now often cited as a kind of unchanging gospel truth. Those
numbers are as follows. Limiting global warming to the agreed global target of 2C
means staying within a carbon budget of 565 GT (gigatonnes or billion tonnes). That
is a fth of the 2,795 GT that would be released if all the worlds proven oil, coal and
gas reserves were burned. Therefore four-fths of the fossil fuel must stay in the
ground.
But other estimates dier. For example, a recent paper in Nature stated that although
well need to leave most of the coal in the ground, we can burn half the gas and
two-thirds of the oil a major dierence given oils key role in the world economy. So
whose gures should we believe?
The short answer is that all such numbers need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For a
start, most of them are out of date. The 565 GT budget in McKibbens piece, for
instance, was rst published in a 2011 report by Carbon Tracker, which in turn based
it on research by the Potsdam Institute. The gure therefore excludes the last four or
ve years of emissions, during which time Id estimate weve eaten through about a
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25/03/2015 16:33

What the numbers tell us about how much fossil fuel reserves...

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/keep-it-in-the-grou...

quarter of the 565 Gt budget.


Moreover, all such gures are based on a set of assumptions that are worth being
aware of. These relate to four key factors:
Evolving climate science
No one knows precisely how much warming will be caused by any given build up of
CO2 in the air, nor how much of the carbon we emit will stay in the atmosphere, as
opposed to getting soaked up by oceans and plants. Instead, the estimated impact of
each tonne of CO2 increases or decreases as scientic knowledge improves. A couple
of years ago, the last major IPCC report slightly reduced the range of estimates for the
climates sensitivity to CO2, increasing the size of any given carbon budget. The
science will continue to evolve.
Acceptable risk
Given the inherent uncertainties, the best that scientists can do is tell us the
likelihood that any given carbon budget will cause any given level of warming.
Picking a budget therefore involves choosing how much risk were prepared to take of
overheating the planet.
This is unavoidably a value judgement as it entails weighing up the cost and
inconvenience of reducing fossil fuel use against the risks of exceeding 2C (which
itself splits scientic opinion: some experts think exceeding even 1.5C could be
disastrous, while others are less nervous about overshooting 2C a little). The Carbon
Tracker/Bill McKibben numbers are based on accepting a 20% chance of exceeding
2C. By contrast, the Nature paper is based on 50/50 odds, while the most recent IPCC
report shows a 33% chance of failure. Changing the acceptable odds can make a big
dierence to the budget.
Fuel reserves and emissions data
The worlds fossil fuel reserves are just a tiny slice of the total fuel resource that we
know exists. To count as a reserve, the fuel has to have a good chance of being
protably extracted. Reserves in turn break down into proven reserves (usually
dened as those with a 90% chance of eventually being taken out of the ground) and
much bigger probable reserves. Fossil fuel being a nite resource, you might assume
that proven reserves would shrink each year as we all ll up our cars and heat our
homes. In reality, though, in recent years these reserves have stayed at or even
increased slightly as ever more unconventional sources such as tar sands and shale
gas get upgraded to proven status thanks to new technologies, such as fracking, and
(until recently) high fuel prices. But as carbon emissions continue, our remaining
budget does get smaller every year and therefore the proportion of fuel we can burn.
Beyond fossil fuels
Although CO2 is the main driver of global warming, there are plenty of others, such as
soot, methane, nitrous oxide and even aeroplane vapour trails. Tackling these other

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25/03/2015 16:33

What the numbers tell us about how much fossil fuel reserves...

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/keep-it-in-the-grou...

warming agents quickly would increase the CO2 budget for any given odds of 2C,
whereas allowing them to increase would have the opposite eect. As the last
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows, success or failure
on these other fronts could make a big dierence to our carbon budget. And thats not
all: although fossil fuel combustion is the main source of CO2, we also release the
same gas by clearing forests and producing cement. The more of our carbon budget
we eat through in these other ways, the less will be left for burning fossil fuels.
With all these factors at play, there is plenty of scope for conicting, confusing and
out of date estimates. If I had to run the numbers myself (as I did for the Guardians
new interactive fossil fuel counters) I would start with the IPCC stat signed o last
year by almost every government in the world: a carbon budget of 1,000 GT of CO2
from 2011 to give a 66% chance of staying under 2C. Subtract the roughly 150 GT
weve already burned since then and that leaves about 850 GT for all sources of CO2.
If we rapidly stopped deforestation and pushed down hard on the other drivers of
global warming, we might be able to stretch our fossil fuel budget to 1,000 GT which
would let us burn around a third of proven reserves. Let deforestation and other
warming agents run amok, however, while also aiming for better odds of staying
below 2C, and we might have as little as 300 GT left for fossil fuels which would be
closer to a 10th of proven reserves.
In other words, while the familiar Bill McKibben/Carbon Tracker numbers are within
the sensible range, nothing is written in stone. Everything from our view of risk to our
eorts to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from cars and methane emissions from cows
will determine how much of the worlds fossil fuel we need to leave in the ground.
And thats not to mention any disruptive carbon capture technologies that might
come along to help us burn more of the fuel without cooking the climate.
For now, however, all of this detail remains academic. Political leaders negotiating at
the UN have failed to even discuss a total global carbon budget, while fossil fuels
companies (both state owned and private) continue to pump huge sums of money
into nding and developing yet more reserves.
So while it is good to understand what factors will determine our carbon budget, it is
much more important to call on politicians and investors alike to get a grip on this
issue and face up to the simple and incontestable reality: theres far more fossil fuel
than we can burn, and the more of it that we take out of the ground, the greater the
risk of an irreversible climate catastrophe.
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Topics
Climate change
Fossil fuels
Greenhouse gas emissions

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25/03/2015 16:33

What the numbers tell us about how much fossil fuel reserves...

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/keep-it-in-the-grou...

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

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