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Why we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground

An important new report says that the world has to stop developing untapped oil, coal and gas reserves right now to avoid climate catastrophe

Fossil fuel reserves need to remain unextracted to avoid climate catastrophe.
Fossil fuel reserves need to remain unextracted to avoid climate catastrophe. (Istockphoto)

In all the talk about adapting to our new reality of soaring global temperatures and climate disasters, what is often forgotten is that the world still needs to tackle the root cause of the climate crisis. And that is to stop burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas almost immediately. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from last month made it very clear, the world has very little time to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, and thus avoid catastrophic climate change. The only way to do so is to keep fossil fuels under the ground.

This message was reiterated in an important analysis published in Nature on 8 September. Unextractable Fossil Fuels In A 1.5°C World, prepared by scientists from the University College London, takes a look at the remaining carbon budget (the amount of CO2 the world can release and still stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius timeframe). According to the authors, the equation is very simple and clear. 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal reserves around the world must stay in the underground and cannot be utilised if we are to have even a 50% chance of staving off the worst impacts of climate change. 

Also Read: UN report says humans are causing catastrophic climate change

The scientists state that fossil fuel assets will soon become worthless and that an inability to turn away from them immediately would mean a major blow to meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The analysis also estimates that global oil and gas production must decline by 3% every year till 2050. The analysis also goes into specifics regarding the unextractable fossil fuel reserves, breaking them down by oil, gas and coal. According to the analysis, in order to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius goal, the US, Russia and eastern European states, with half of global coal reserves will need to keep 97% unextracted. India and China, with nearly 25% of the world’s coal reserves, need to keep 76% in the ground. 

Furthermore, it stresses that all fracking for natural gas must be suspended immediately and the Arctic fossil fuel reserves need to remain completely untouched. Middle eastern countries, which account for over half of the world’s oil reserves, must keep 62% of oil in the ground. The scientists do warn that this is pretty much the minimum that governments should be doing. To be certain of averting runaway climate change, even greater amounts of fossil fuel need to remain in the ground. 

Also Read: India’s economy can lose $35 trillion without climate action


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