New Climate Study Advises Leaving Fossil Fuels in the Ground. But Will We?

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 24, 2015 14
Wind energy farm

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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,



  1. Robert Bakal March 23, 2015 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    Like every problem in the world the answer is money. We will continue to take the fossil fuels out of the ground because it’s relatively inexpensive. Until alternative energy sources achieve greater efficiency and lower cost most people will opt for fossil fuel. A hybrid car is great but if you look at the increased cost vs. the cost of the fuel there is no savings so why not spend the same money on a more luxurious car. We live in a world where money is king and society values material things. Thus until it is cheaper to go alternative we are going to continue with current practices.

  2. Melania Padilla March 4, 2015 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Hardly…. Thanks for posting.

  3. John Hains March 1, 2015 at 11:43 am - Reply

    As much as I hate to promote a pessimistic view, I have to agree with James. If history is any indication of our future decision-making, the primary limit on what we do with carbon will be the economic cost. Price it differently and we’ll see changes in behavior.

  4. Dick Schaffer February 27, 2015 at 5:52 am - Reply

    Personally I think it is already to late. Something they don’t mention when they talk about climate change is that all the ice ages started with warming. Judging by the winters the midwest and east coast of the US are now getting, I think the real question is what are they going to call the new glacier when it starts to form.

  5. Jessica Klein February 26, 2015 at 10:44 am - Reply

    It is difficult to predict whether we will stop extracting fossil fuels before we reach that one third mark. I think it is unlikely but it comes down to a race of the inverse correlation between increased availability and profitability of renewable resources and consumer demand for fossil fuels.
    There have been enormous strides in renewal energy usage in recent years. Some of the European countries in particular are sourcing a large percentage of their energy needs from wind and solar, Germany comes to mind.

  6. James Crants February 26, 2015 at 10:37 am - Reply

    As others have pointed out, if you wanted to design a problem human psychology is poorly equipped to solve, you couldn’t do better than global warming. It’s vast in both spatial and temporal scales, relative to the scales individuals inhabit; the long-term, global signal is hidden in a lot of local, short-term noise; and greenhouse gas emissions are just one of many factors that shape the climate. All of this makes it hard to convince people anthropogenic global warming is even real. Then, by the time you’ve convinced them on that point, the scale of the problem leads people to conclude there’s nothing they can do anyway. Each individual has so little impact on the problem, no matter how much they put themselves out to make their contribution. So we’ll do less than we should.

    Still, it gets harder and harder to deny the problem and our role in it as the data keep coming in. I think, over time, people will push harder and harder for something to be done by the big players, and more and more people will opt for lower-emissions options whenever it’s not too inconvenient. The trends in that direction are already well underway. So we’ll do more than nothing.

  7. Arjuna Perera February 26, 2015 at 5:46 am - Reply

    The usage of fossil fuels is an unavoidably integral part of a developing technological species.
    The problem started from the day our species discovered fire, and only increased in magnitude over the centuries.

    Usage of fossil fuels is only one aspect of the problem.

    The other aspect is the cutting down of forests. Since the industrial revolution earth has lost nearly 2 BILLION acres of forest cover. Forests are the planets only true sequestration mechanism.

    For all our species boasting of technology, we do not know how to do a few things

    1) Make starch/sugar 2) Make complex proteins 3) make lipids 4) Sequester emissions.

    But a plant can do at minimum two of these things, or more.

    But when we cut down the planets only mechanism of sequestrations, and dig-out and burn up and emit what the previous generations of forests had sequestered (i.e. fossil fuels) that’s a double whammy on the planet! An unrecoverable one…. Unless we take the effort…
    (More at

  8. Matthew Sanchez February 26, 2015 at 5:43 am - Reply

    Good read. The primary issue now seems to be removing or limiting the powers who run the energy companies that extract, refine and sell the fossil fuels to the public as they have and will continue to impede any threats to their source of wealth. In addition, the transition to a world which relies more on renewable energy would have to accommodate the millions of people worldwide who’s jobs are currently involved in some way in the business of fossil fuels.

  9. sinnadurai sripadmanaban February 26, 2015 at 5:41 am - Reply

    Unless UN take strict measures exploiting fuel sources underground will continue similar to cutting trees, killing animals, dumping waste in land, sea, rivers, eradicating minorities as in Israel, Iraq, Srilanka, Myanmar and so on. UK & USA should take useful steps to control this instead of supporting criminal governments by sovereignty of state.

  10. Gerry Wootton February 25, 2015 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Not likely to happen … even though fossil fuel is nature’s CCS method. The history of resource extraction is always the same: it is depleted at an increasing rate until it starts to become more expensive to extract and the law of supply and demand intersects with cost of production; after that, it can survive as a cottage industry for an indefinite time. Technology and logistics can change the time scale but not the shape of the production curve: it might be instructive to note that by the time that Samuel Hearne was able to visit the remote copper mines of the eponymous river, the resource had reached it’s downside although being mainly extracted using bone tools; even then, exploitation had fallen off due to the new supply of iron and steel reducing the market to mainly decorative use. The current upward swing in oil production illustrates an interesting behavior where ample supply is driving down prices but driving up demand but seems to have a greater impact on profits than on production volume. It seems that the only way to hobble production is to shift demand to other commodities e.g. renewable energy, bio-materials, etc. If left to their own devices, governments tend to amble towards carbon pricing which provides a semblance of action but can be restrained to a level which has minimal impact on fossil fuel production (a win-win for politicians); in any case, minor economic interference won’t
    alter the underlying economic behavior – if governments are going to play a part, they’re going to have to resort to hard policy (they won’t). Currently, governments such as Canada and Alberta experiencing reduced fossil fuel revenue as a problematic loss of government revenue – they aren’t likely to espouse policies which would reduce production volumes; instead, they favor measures that increase markets. Therein lies a problem with international agreements: by exporting fossil fuels, a country can control or even reduce its carbon footprint while continuing to pump up the global carbon footprint. The Canadian government takes it to a high level of duplicity by finger-pointing at countries like China while simultaneously developing opportunities to export more and more fossil fuel to countries like China.

  11. Tjalle ("Chuck") Vandergraaf February 25, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Obama just vetoed this bill.

  12. Paul E. Stacey February 25, 2015 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    At last! Rationality!! Nature has provided the perfect sequestration mechanism, for free! And one that we can’t restore or simulate without burning more energy.

  13. Jalil S.M. February 25, 2015 at 6:18 am - Reply

    Yes Madam, I do also wish and hope! But I have my doubt if the world will comply? Some one may voluntarily comply, some one may comply under compulsion, some one may be reluctant, some one cannor afford! It seems US is in a better position to handle the issue, already providing technical assistance and so it may be expected(I am not sure)that US may comply for the whole world!

  14. Stephanie Long February 25, 2015 at 6:17 am - Reply

    I hope so! In the US research has found many more viable alternatives that are more environmentally sound. With commitment, conservation, recycling & more research, we can find better solutions.and &

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