Time for energy democracy
How much more coal, oil and gas including shale gas can we continue to burn and still have a 50:50 chance of keeping the rise in global average temperatures below 2 degrees C?
The Coalition’s Infrastructure Bill would make it legally binding on government to “Maximise the economic recovery of UK Petroleum.” But even at 50:50 odds, 88% of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change, according to a new study published in Nature. One-third (35%) of known oil reserves and 52% of gas reserves are unburnable. Canada’s tar sands and the 100 billion barrels of oil estimated to exist in the Arctic would need to go untouched.
So might almost any significant new forms of fossil fuel exploitation if we’re to stay below two degrees. That temperature is a target above which scientists believe the most dangerous effects of climate change would begin to occur
As of 2010, we could release a maximum of about 1,000 billion (that is, one trillion) more tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have a 50:50 chance of staying below two degrees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Globally, fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes are the dominant sources of the annual 49 billion tonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted each year, and the grand total is rising annually (see graphic).
In rough terms, at an annual rate of 49 billion tonnes, the full, relatively safe emissions budget will be used up in two decades.
Unburnable by region
That vast amounts of fossil fuels should remain in the ground is not a new idea. The unique contribution of the new study is to identify how much fossil fuel is unburnable in specific regions of the world, from Canadian tar sands to the oil-rich Middle East.
The University College, London, paper was prepared by Dr Christophe McGlade and Prof Paul Ekins (a leading speaker at the TUC’s climate change conference in autumn, 2014). It compares the 1 trillion tonne allowable carbon budget with best estimates of how much oil, gas and coal exist worldwide in economically recoverable form, known as “reserves”. Currently, there are three times more known reserves than we can safely burn:
- Coal: Russia and the US could burn just 5% or less of their coal reserves.
- Gas: 94% of Europe’s gas reserves are still burnable in a two degree world, compared to only one-third of the much larger Middle Eastern gas reserves.
- Europe: 89% of known coal and 21% of oil is unburnable.
Capturing carbon no panacea
Carbon capture & storage (CCS) technology will only have a limited impact on the proportion of fossil fuels that can be burned. CCS would allow just 6% more of the world’s known coal reserves to be used up, with an even lower figure for oil and gas:
“Because of the expense of CCS, its relatively late date of introduction (2025), and the assumed maximum rate at which it can be built, CCS has a relatively modest effect on the overall levels of fossil fuel that can be produced before 2050 in a two-degree scenario,” the authors say.
The new research paints a bleak picture of the relentless global march of fossil fuel consumption. Clearly, there would appear to be little option but to ensure that usage of the remaining “1 trillion” fossil fuel budget is brought under democratic control appropriate to national circumstances and consistent with the UN’s overarching objective of avoiding dangerous climate change.
In 2006, the Blair government published Dangerous Climate Change, a compendium of 41 expert essays on including one from Stephen Schneider and Janica Lane which hit the nail on the head:
“Whether using the atmosphere as an unpriced waste dump to more rapidly achieve growth-oriented goals is ‘ethical’ is a value laden debate that will no doubt heat up as greenhouse gas buildups grow.”
Global carbon emissions increased by 2.2% a year over the decade 2000-2010.
Yet the growing tension between energy and democracy is being played out in the Coalition’s Infrastructure Bill where, for example:
- Clause 36 would make it legally binding on government to “Maximise the economic recovery of UK Petroleum”, at the very moment in our history when we know we must leave 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground to stand a chance of minimising climate change.
- Clauses 38 to 43 would give fracking companies the ‘Right of Use’ of any land below 300m, meaning they would no longer need permission from the landowner to drill, frack or leave ‘any substance’ in the land.