80% of coal reserves need to stay in the ground

Publish date: January 14, 2015

A new study from the University College London (UCL) Institute for Sustainable Resources assesses the scale of fossil fuel reserves that can be exploited if the world is to have a 50% chance of limiting average global temperature increases to the recommended 2°C. The report finds that 80% of coal reserves are to be deemed unusable through to 2050, and that a third of oil reserves and half of gas reserves will have to remain in the ground if the world is to have a chance at halting severe climate change.

At present, 2,900 gigatonnes of fossil fuel reserves worldwide are technically and economically recoverable. However, as a number of reports have already warned, only around 1,100 gigatonnes of CO2 can be emitted in order to remain within the 2°C increase target.

What distinguishes this report from previous ones is its detailed division of regions.

With the aid of computer models and taking into account respective regional costs of extraction and assumed future technological development, the UCL report calculates which regions must undertake considerable cuts in output. The results indicate that the Middle East would have to leave about half of its recoverable oil reserves, amounting to around 260 billion barrels, in the ground. The US and Australia, on the other hand, would have to give up 90% of their currently recoverable coal resources.

When it comes to Europe, the study finds that 21% of the continent’s oil reserves, 6% of its natural gas reserves and 89% of its coal reserves must remain unused. The extraction of fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic should be abandoned completely.

Concept of “unemittable carbon”

In reference to the report, Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science at Oxford University, explains that as long as the fossil fuel industry succeeds in extracting energy while capturing the CO2 in the process and storing it underground, then the fossil fuel consumption restrictions prescribed by the report may not apply.

Bellona sees Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as the only available technology that can balance EU Member States’ energy security with the Union’s commitments to climate action. To read more see the Bellona Europa brief Ensuring Energy Supply Security in Europe with CCS.