World governments must get used to the idea of leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground unexploited and unburned, one of the world’s most senior diplomats has said, ahead of a landmark report on climate science to be unveiled this Friday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The former Irish president and UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, is to spearhead a new international push aimed at breaking the climate talks deadlock and silencing sceptics, with a group of senior diplomats and politicians from around the world.
Climate sceptics are “not based in reality” and parts of the business community are “trying to cloud and distort the science”, she said, adding that strong political leadership was needed to counter them.
Robinson told the Guardian that governments would have to confront the harsh reality that much of their fossil fuel reserves, and accompanying economic value, would have to be left behind if runaway emissions were not to threaten the climate.
“There is a global limit on a safe level of emissions. That means major fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground. That has huge implications for economic and social development.”
It would mean creating incentives for countries to look at other resources, as well as carbon pricing to penalise fossil fuel use, and most of all “political certainty” coming from global leaders.
She said it was also vital that developing countries should not be put at a disadvantage by this process, as many rich countries have had more opportunity to exploit their fossil resources and have benefited from them over decades. “It must be managed in a fair way. Developing countries must not bear all the burden. We need a robust and fair climate change agreement.”
She acknowledged that some countries and many businesses, particularly those with fossil fuel interests, would be hostile to the proposal. The current economic value of the resources left unused – without taking into account their effects on the climate – is likely to run into hundreds of billions of pounds. “We are already talking to the business community that wants change, but there is obviously a business community that is trying to cloud and distort the science.”
She said going for green growth instead of fossil fuels could create jobs and prosperity, as well as improving health and avoiding the danger that the ravages of global warming could destroy the gains made in lifting developing countries out of poverty.
Robinson called for strong messages by world political leaders on tackling global warming, which she said were needed to combat the growing chorus of climate sceptics, emboldened by recent media coverage ahead of the IPCC report. “The best way to counter the sceptics is to have strong political leadership. They [the sceptics] are not based in reality.”
Robinson, who was the first woman to be president of Ireland, from 1990 to 1997, then United Nations high commissioner for human rights to 2002, and is a member of the Elders group of dignitaries that includes Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – is widely respected for her role on the world stage, particularly in focusing attention on women’s rights.
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80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if the planet is to avoid dangerous climate change, according to the latest report by Australia’s Climate Commission.
The international community has agreed that global temperature rise must be kept with 2ºC on pre-industrial levels, and that any rise above this is unacceptably high. The new report warns that with the world already approaching a 1ºC rise, only 20% – or 600 billion tonnes – of the 2,860 billion tonnes of CO2 in known fossil fuel reserves can be burned in order to give the world a 80% of remaining within the 2ºC limit.
Australia’s coal reserves alone represent about 51 billion tonnes of potential CO2 emissions – around a twelfth of the total global carbon budget.
In a significant update to its comprehensive 2011 report, the Climate Commission says that many of the dire consequences of climate change it and the global scientific community have warned about are already evident.
One quarter of the way through Australia’s ‘Critical Decade’, they say there is already clear evidence that the changing climate will bring more ‘Angry Summer’ heatwaves, droughts, floods, strong tropical storms and rising sea levels to Australia, damaging the country’s environment, threatening health and impacting the economy.
The risks posed by an increasingly warming world are now better understood, the scientific consensus is stronger than ever and the financial sector is waking up to the fact that global society must virtually decarbonise in the next 30-35 years to keep the world within the internationally agreed 2ºC limit.
To keep the temperature rise, and by extension the damage of extreme weather, at a “manageable” level the report says global emissions must be trending downwards by the end of the decade.
Professor Will Steffen, a climate commissioner who co-authored the report, said:
We have to get global emissions trending downward by the end of the decade to have any reasonable chance of meeting that 2 degree target. We need to make the right investment decisions. We have to leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground and of course that has obvious implications for investment decisions this decade.
We have to put in place a very clear pathway to a decarbonised economy in the next 30-35 years. That requires us to make smart decisions on investments now.
If an orderly transition from coal, oil and gas to renewable energy is not made, Australia’s economy and investor capital could face huge risks and potential asset stranding, as the majority of fossil fuel reserves become worthless as governments take action on climate change.
IEA acknowledges fossil fuel reserves climate crunch
The International Energy Agency released its annual flagship publication today, the World Energy Outlook. The IEA made an historic statement in the executive summary.
It said, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal”, the internationally recognized limit to average global warming in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Let me rephrase that. Over two-thirds of today’s proven reserves of fossil fuels need to still be in the ground in 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change.
We congratulate the IEA for recognizing this crucial point and encourage the organization to prioritize this message in its presentations and public messaging. It is especially important given that the world’s fossil fuel industry is working overtime to increase its proven reserve base.
Let’s take the Canadian tar sands industry as an example. As the chart below shows,the tar sands industry has enough projects producing, under construction and approved to blow well past the climate limits prescribed by the IEA. Nevertheless even more projects are lined up for regulatory approval leading to a possible trebling of production capacity over and above the IEA limit.
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WEO 2012 – Executive Summary – English version (by the IEA – the International Energy Agency) which says:
“No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to
2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS)
technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon
reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves.
Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas.
Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia.
These findings underline the importance of CCS as a key option to mitigate CO2
emissions, but its pace of deployment remains highly uncertain, with only a handful of commercial scale projects currently in operation.”