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Burning Even Today's Existing Fossil Fuel Reserves Would Blow The World's Carbon Budget

[Photo: Flickr user

Over the next 20 years, fossil fuel companies plan to spend around $14 trillion developing new coal mines, oil and gas fields, and building other new infrastructure. The problem: none of that oil, gas, and fossil fuel can actually be used if the world wants to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Worse, we also can't burn all of the fossil fuel reserves that are already in use or under construction now. A new report studied developed reserves and calculated that the emissions from current mines and fields would break the 2-degree Celsius limit for warming that avoids the worst catastrophic planetary impacts.

It's simple math: To have a reasonable chance of staying under two degrees, we can emit an estimated 843 gigatons of carbon. The carbon in existing oil, gas, and coal operations adds up to 942 gigatons, and that doesn't even include all the emissions that will still come from outside the energy world, such as deforestation.

Burning the fuel from existing oil and gas fields, alone, would break a 1.5-degree limit for warming, which many consider a safer upper limit. The global Paris climate deal calls for limiting warming to 2 degrees, but aims for 1.5 degrees.

Other studies have also concluded that we can't burn all fossil fuel reserves and stay within safe limits for climate change, but this report went farther by focusing only on projects that already exist. "We want to know the full story of what we're looking at," says David Turnbull, campaigns director for Oil Change International, which led the development of the report with 14 other organizations. "That sort of information about what fossil fuel companies already have underway is not something that's really been talked about in a way that's helped to influence the public debate."

As a first step, the report argues that governments should stop issuing permits for new development. A few governments are moving slowly in that direction—China and Indonesia, for example, now have a moratorium on new coal projects, and U.S. has a moratorium on new coal mines on federal land. The momentum is coming from public opposition.

"The #KeepItInTheGround movement has been growing massively in the U.S. and around the world, and this study is really the math behind what they're demanding," says Turnbull. "I think there's a lot of momentum in the public to move in this direction and it's time for the governments to catch up with that."

Every oil well doesn't have to shut down immediately—the report argues for a managed decline that protects energy jobs—but the shift to renewable energy will have happen quickly. To have a reasonably good chance of keeping warming below two degrees, at the current pace of emissions, we'll only have 21 years before we've emitted the maximum amount of carbon possible; some of that energy will have to go towards building new zero-carbon infrastructure. To stay under 1.5 degrees, we have a decade.

The report points to studies that explain that the shift to renewables is possible in that time frame. "We're already seeing massive decreases in the cost of wind and solar, we're seeing a huge uptick in electric vehicles coming on the market and becoming cheaper," Turnbull says.

The biggest challenge will be stopping companies from extracting fossil fuels from existing fields and mines, where the businesses already have massive investments. But Turnbull believes that can also change with political pressure.

"I'm really optimistic that the public has woken up to the realities of climate change, and is quickly waking up to the realities of what it means for moving away from fossil fuels and having a new clean economy," he says. "When politicians see that their elections could be swayed by their views on action on climate change, they'll move in the right direction."

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