Most fossil fuels must stay underground according to study

The majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must remain buried to prevent dangerous climate change, a new study says.

More than 80 per cent of coal, 49 per cent of gas and 33 per cent of oil reserves cannot be burned in order to limit global warming to 2°C.

The study, conducted by experts from University College London, showed that considerable amounts of oil in the Middle East and coal in the US, Australia and China, must stay in the ground until 2050 if the world is to limit temperature rises.

The article, published in the journal Nature, also ruled out drilling in the Arctic. The first analysis to look into existing reserves, the study identified the carbon emissions that cause rising temperatures and where in the world fossil fuels can be extracted cost-effectively.  

"We've now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2°C temperature limit," said Dr Christophe McGlade, lead researcher of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources.

"Policy makers must realise that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2°C goal.”

According to the UCL scientists, fossil fuel companies should have a cautious approach when it comes to investing in future exploration given there is more in the ground than “we can afford to burn”.

To keep within the 2°C limit, around 223 billion fewer barrels of oil and 290 billion fewer tonnes of coal should be produced, compared to the current exploitation rate which puts us on track for rises of 5°C.

The uneven distribution of resources has been a talking point ahead of the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris, where countries seeking to exploit their natural resources aim to strike a global deal.

"If it turns out we can exploit unconventional gas in a cost-optimal way I see no reason why we shouldn't do it, provided local environmental implications can be resolved, and that is a big proviso," said co-author Professor Paul Ekins.

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