LONDON, UK, January 9, 2015 (ENS) – A third of the world’s oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 percent of all coal reserves should remain in the ground and not be burned before 2050 if global warming is to stay below the 2°C target agreed by world governments, finds new research by the University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources.

The authors show that the overwhelming majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States should remain unused along with over 260 thousand million barrels oil reserves in the Middle East, equivalent to all of the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia.

oil pump

Oil pump near Okarche, Oklahoma at sunrise (Photo by Marvin Bredel)

The Middle East should also leave over 60 percent of its gas reserves in the ground, the study concludes.

The development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil – oil of a poor quality which is hard to extract – are also found to be inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change.

The study was funded by the UK Energy Research Centre and published in the journal “Nature” Monday. It identifies the geographic location of existing reserves that should remain unused and so illustrates which regions stand to lose the most from achieving the 2°C goal.

For the study, published Wednesday, the scientists first developed an innovative method for estimating the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources.

They then used an integrated assessment model to explore which of these, along with low-carbon energy sources, should be used up to 2050 to meet the world’s energy needs.

The model, which uses an internationally-recognized modeling framework, has multiple improvements on previous models. This enables it represent the long-term production dynamics and resource potential of fossil fuels.

Lead author Dr. Christophe McGlade, research associate at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources said, “We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2°C temperature limit.

refinery

Sinopec Refinery, Shanghai, China. Sinopec is China’s largest petroleum refiner, ranking second in the world. (Photo by Calvin Ge)

“Policy makers must realize that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2°C goal,” said McGlade. “If they go ahead with developing their own resources, they must be asked which reserves elsewhere should remain unburnt in order for the carbon budget not to be exceeded.”

Co-author Paul Ekins is a professor of resources and environmental policy at and director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources. He was honored with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to environmental policy in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list.

“Companies spent over $670 billion (£430 billion) last year searching for and developing new fossil fuel resources,” Ekins said. “They will need to rethink such substantial budgets if policies are implemented to support the 2 degree C limit, especially as new discoveries cannot lead to increased aggregate production.”

“Investors in these companies should also question spending such budgets,” said Ekins. “The greater global attention to climate policy also means that fossil fuel companies are becoming increasingly risky for investors in terms of the delivery of long-term returns. I would expect prudent investors in energy to shift increasingly towards low-carbon energy sources.”

The scientists’ analysis shows that their results are consistent with a wide variety of alternative modelling approaches from groups across the world with differing assumptions.

Building on this analysis, their future work aims to investigate further the shifts in cumulative fossil fuel production between scenarios that lead to different long-term average global temperature rises.

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