Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

10 Jan 2015

Leave it unburned

Posted by Michael Keating

We have known for years that we have to drastically reduce fossil fuel use to avoid catastrophic climate change. It is the most important sustainability challenge the world has ever faced.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, in 2014, said: “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.” It predicted more heat waves and other weather extremes. The seas will become warmer, more acid and will continue to rise. The IPCC called for “…substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades, and near zero emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases by the end of the century.”

The majority of nations have accepted the advice of the IPCC, and agreed on a target of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees C.

What does this mean?

Previous studies have estimated that about two-thirds of readily accessible fossil fuels need to be left in the ground before 2050 to stay within this limit.

A recent study funded by the UK Energy Research Centre came up with more specific estimates. In the publication Nature authors Christope McGlade and Paul Ekins wrote that globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to avoid exceeding the 2 C target. They say specifically that development of fossil fuels in the Arctic and increased unconventional oil production, such as Canada’s oil sands, go against promises to limit global warming.

The paper highlights a huge contradiction in how the world is approaching the biggest environmental problem. With current energy patterns, we are headed for a 5C warming this century, which is predicted to cause huge environmental and social problems. Despite decades of warnings, going back at least to the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, held in Toronto in 1988, fossil fuel industries continue to expand the supply, often with government subsidies.

Fossil fuels are the major source of global greenhouse gas emissions. These fuels­—coal, oil and natural gas­—still account for more than 80 per cent of global commercial energy. Mr. Ekins said companies spent over $670 billion last year searching for and developing new fossil fuel resources. By comparison, $214 billion was invested in renewable power and fuels in 2013, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In 2013, the International Energy Agency estimated that consumer subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to $548 billion, while subsidies for renewable energy amounted to $121 billion. Renewables, including biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind, only account for about 13 per cent of the world’s commercial energy.

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