Where the Unused Fossil Fuels Might Be

by Emil Morhardt

If by some miracle we as humanity collectively decide to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep the planet from heating up by more than 2 ºC, there are going to be lots of fossil fuels left in the ground. Where will they be? For sure, there will be a good deal left: a third of remaining oil reserves, half of natural gas reserves, and over 80% of known coal reserves will still be unused by 2050. These reserves are defined as the sources that could be economically recovered today and that can be assigned a probability of production. For starters, McGlade and Ekins (2015) think that all fossil fuels in the Arctic, and all oil that could obtained by unconventional methods (such as hydraulic fracturing) ought to be left in place. They then look at all known reserves and partition them by cost of production, reasoning that the least expensive will be mined first. And they point out that, given the amount of reserves, the chances of us not using them is stark. Still, they are able to model the probable trajectory of temperatures using a mix of the available fuel sources. As the bottom line, it is abundantly clear that if we were once in fear of running out of fossil fuels, a more pressing current concern is that we might not.

The Middle East would have, by far, the most unrecovered oil and gas. For oil, this is about twice that of the total for the four next most abundant regions (in descending order Central and South America, Canada, the Former Soviet Union, and Africa); for gas, 1.4 times that in the Former Soviet Union, and at least ten times that anywhere else. Coal reserves, on the other hand, are most abundant in the US, closely followed by the Former Soviet Union and China/India.

It will not be lost on the reader that many of these reserves are in relatively poor or otherwise distressed countries unlikely to give up their main source of revenue until considerably more damage from global warming and climate change is evident, and maybe not even then. And even where extreme poverty isn’t an overriding issue, it is clearly far easier for people to attack the concept of global warming than it is to forgo a revenue stream…just look at the attitudes of the Members of Congress from US coal mining states.

McGlade, C., Ekins, P., 2015. The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 ºC. Nature 517, 187-190.

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