Product has been added to the basket

Burning issue

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgOscar Wilde said he could resist everything except temptation.  So what about the rest of us?  Pretty much the same is my guess. 

Global resources of fossil fuels are currently thought to equal the equivalent (burned) of 11,000 Gt of CO2.  Yet a recent review* estimates that, if we are to limit global warming to 2°C, between 2011 and 2050 we can burn no more than a maximum of 1240 Gt. 

That would mean leaving 80% of coal, 50% of gas, and 30% of oil underground.  The Middle East would have to deny itself 40% of its hydrocarbon reserves.  About 66% of China and India’s coal, 86% of Africa’s and 90% of the former Soviet Republics’, would have to stay down the mines. And although shale gas and other unconventionals are generally less polluting, Africa and the Middle East would have to deny themselves 100% of it, and China and India would only be able to use 10% of theirs, including coal-bed methane.

Of course, this all depends on how much evolved CO2 could be sequestrated by capture and storage schemes; but there are large uncertainties about this partly because it’s an emerging technology, and partly because of its inevitable cost.

Campaigners like to suggest that such facts put pressure on the owners of fossil fuel reserves, because the clear necessity to leave them unused will land them with overvalued reserves – ‘stranded assets’, in the jargon – and that since we will never make progress unless there is agreement, future regulatory frameworks must include compensation.  But when bottom-up pressure for ‘development’ so greatly exceeds the top-down political will to limit, or slow it down (by making it sustainable and therefore more expensive), how realistic are these assumptions?

The innumerable bicycles of India and the Far East have already given way to the two-stroke motorbike.  Soon they will give way to the family car, which will have more in common with the Trabant than the Toyota Prius.  Would even the alleviation of developing countries’ national debt be enough to counteract the grassroots push for higher standards of living? 

As Sospeter Muhongo HonFGS (Energy Minister, Tanzania) said last August at a US-Africa Leaders’ Summit: “We in Africa...should not be in the discussion of whether we should use coal or not.  In ...Tanzania, we are going to use our natural resources because we have reserves which go beyond five billion tonnes.”  And there you have it.

  • McGlade C & Elkins P 2015: The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C.  Nature 517, 187 8 january 2015 doi: 10:1038/nature14016




@TedNield @geoscientistmag