The coal must stay in the ground

We have already found more coal and oil than we can use if we are to keep the earth’s climate under control. Temperature increases above 2°C would have a major impact on the earth’s ecosystem.

To maintain the earth’s temperature below 2°C increase, humanity can only release another 1000 GT (billion tons) carbon of dioxide. We have already released 1300 GT which has increased the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from 280 ppm to 400 ppm and raised earth’s average temperature with 1°C. Meanwhile there are still large registered reserves of fossil fuels.

For countries and companies that own oil and coal reserves, the reserves in the ground represent large values and they have often already mortgaged the value of the unbroken coal reserves.

Now research shows that if we are to manage the climate 80% of these coal reserves need to stay in the ground. 30% of the oil and 50% of the world gas reserves also must be left, which together correspond to 1900 GT carbon emissions.

Reserves that won’t be possible to recover are usually called “stranded assets”, in other words assets that can be written down as useless since they can’t be utilized. Experts often talk about a coal bubble as the assets are overvalued.

“In 2013, the oil companies spent 670 billion dollars to find new oil and gas reserves. One might ask why they are doing this when there is more [in known reserves] already than we can afford to burn [if we are to make the carbon budget]”, says professor Paul Elkins at University College London.

The question is what tools that are to be used to get the companies to leave the fossil fuels in the ground and what countries that shouldn’t burn up their coal reserves.

One conflict is how the remaining carbon budget is to be divided between industrialized countries and developing countries. Or as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed it during the climate negotiations: “A fair distribution of the small space to release carbon dioxide that remains must allow the developing countries financial growth”.

That means that the industrialized countries need to lower their emissions quicker and many countries are now taking such steps. On March 9:th 2016, the Cross-Party Committee on Environmental Objectives with seven parliamentary parties jointly proposed a climate law which states that Sweden will reach zero net emissions of carbon dioxide by year 2045.