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Mary Mazzoni headshot

We Really Need to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground to Avoid the Worst of Climate Change, Scientists Say

Countries must leave 90 percent of the world's coal reserves and 60 percent of its oil and gas reserves in the ground to have even a 50 percent chance of capping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a new report.
By Mary Mazzoni
Coal mining fossil fuels

The alarm bells from scientists about the climate crisis are rising from a steady drumbeat to a deafening crescendo. Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first major report in nearly a decade, warning the climate crisis is already causing “widespread and rapid changes" and that human activity — specifically carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels — is “unequivocally” to blame. We’re essentially locked into at least 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the IPCC warned, but we still have a chance to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 or 2 degrees — avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis — if we employ immediate, decisive interventions to reduce emissions.

For national governments, those interventions must center around embracing low-carbon energy and leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground, according to another report published in the journal Nature last week. 

We need to keep the vast majority of the world's fossil fuels in the ground, researchers warn

Countries must leave 90 percent of the world's coal reserves and 60 percent of its oil and gas reserves in the ground to have even a 50 percent chance of capping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the peer-reviewed study from the University College London.

The researchers estimate that oil and gas production must decline globally by 3 percent each year until 2050 in order for us to reach that 50-50 shot at avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis. "This implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable," the study reads.  

The researchers note some positive indicators: Global coal production peaked in 2013, and oil is estimated to have peaked in 2019 or be nearing peak demand. But fossil fuels still account for more than 80 percent of the global energy mix, a figure that must "decline rapidly" in order to mitigate global temperature rise. 

"Dramatic cuts in fossil fuel production are required immediately in order to move towards limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees," Dan Welsby, lead author of the report, said at a news conference last week, as quoted by CNN. "But the current and indicated fossil fuel production trajectories globally are moving us in the wrong direction."

Producers should be wary of stranded assets 

Accelerating the shift away from fossil-based energy "will mean that large amounts of fossil fuel reserves, prospects that are seen today as economic, will never be extracted," the researchers warn. "This has important implications for producers who may be banking on monetizing those reserves in the future, and current and prospective investors. Investments made today in fossil fuel energy therefore risk being stranded."

Estimates published last year indicate that a third of the current value of big oil and gas companies — around $900 billion— would turn to dust if governments get serious about capping global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees. Even in a 2-degree scenario, about half of these companies' assets are at risk of being stranded. 

"The takeaway in this study really addresses the elephant in the room," Maisa Rojas Corradi, coordinating lead author of the IPCC report, told CNN about the University College research. "We have known since we've signed up for the Paris Agreement in 2015, that this means we have to stop burning fossil fuels by mid century. For six years, we have known the logical consequence is that there are loads of fossil fuels that would not be able to extract. It's really good that the paper shows so clearly what, in very practical terms, this really means."

The University College findings echo a May report from the International Energy Agency, which declared "there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply." 

TriplePundit will be tracking topics like this during Climate Week next week and in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the latest directly in your inbox. 

Image credit: Dominik Vanyi/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni