According to a new study, 82 percent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to remain in the ground to counter rapid climate change. A shift to low-carbon energy sources, such as wind power, is imperative. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

At the most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, more than 190 countries—including the United States—voluntarily agreed to limit carbon emissions in order to keep the world from warming another 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. Beyond that threshold, say climate change scientists, rising sea levels, severe droughts and superstorms will become routine.

But in order to stay within that two-degree limit, according to a brand-new study published on January 7, 2015, more than 80 percent of the world’s current coal reserves, half of its gas reserves and a third of its oil reserves will need to remain in the ground and not be used before 2050.

On February 11, 2015, however, just weeks after this study was published, the U.S. Congress passed the Keystone XL Pipeline bill—which approves the construction of a pipeline that will carry tar sands oil from Canada south through the United States, where the oil will eventually reach Gulf Coast refineries.

Superstorms will become even more commonplace if the world warms another two degrees. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

In light of such seemingly contradictory actions, by the United States and other nations, is catastrophic climate change inevitable?

Leaving Arctic fossil fuel reserves and tar sands oil alone

The University College London (UCL) Institute for Sustainable Resources published the new study online in the international science journal Nature. The report’s key findings were that if we want to stay below the two-degree-Celsius limit by the end of this century:

• Globally, 82 percent of coal reserves, 50 percent of gas reserves, and 33 percent of oil reserves need to stay in the ground;
• Different countries will have to sacrifice different amounts. For example, Russia must not use more than 10 percent of its coal reserves and Saudi Arabia will need to keep from developing almost all of its remaining oil;
• Plans to develop any Arctic reserves of oil and gas should be abandoned;
• And the vast majority of tar sands oil in Canada must stay in the ground.

Chief Phil Lane Jr. addresses hundreds of protestors at a rally rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline that would deliver oil into the U.S. from Canada. ©Charlie Kaijo, flickr

Paris promises versus real-world economics

In 2014, companies spent $670 billion looking for and developing new sources of fossil fuels. However, the UCL study indicates that such expenditures are now a waste of money. Even if new sources of fossil fuels are identified, they must not be extracted for our use if we want to curb the greenhouse gases that are the major contributors to disastrous climate change.

The hope is that the results of the UCL study will cause energy investors to make a major shift away from fossil fuels toward low-carbon energy sources. Already, the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs and some U.S. universities have begun evaluating the serious risk they take when investing in expensive fossil fuel projects that will almost certainly be rendered worthless by inevitable future climate change.

Some say that the most positive thing to come out of UCL’s research results is that we now have tangible figures for the quantities and specific locations of the fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the two-degree Celsius temperature limit. But the study also highlights the contradictions governments exhibit when they seek to maximize their nations’ fossil fuel extractions while simultaneously pledging to limit their carbon emissions. At the very least, say supporters of the study’s findings, if governments approve new fossil fuel production, they should then be required to show what other resources of theirs they would not exploit.

Plans to develop fossil fuels in the Arctic, such as under the Greenland ice sheet, should be abandoned. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The Lima conference was meant to lay the foundation for a climate accord to be reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December 2015. That conference’s objective is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on cutting back carbon emissions, from all the nations of the world.

Yet with events such as the United States’ passing of the Keystone XL Pipeline bill and bids to drill in the Arctic from nations such as Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Russia, will any promises to curb greenhouse gas emissions made at the Paris conference be credible?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,