If Nature publishes it, will people finally listen? That may be what researchers from the University of London are hoping, because the international science journal has published a new study telling us what we’re already supposed to know—that we need to leave most of our fossil fuels in the ground if we want to keep climate change under control. Bill McKibben’s told us as much, of course, but policy makers don’t appear to have gotten the message yet.
But the timing of the study is good. The House has voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline; the new Republican-majority Senate votes next, and is expected to pass the bill. But maybe, just maybe, this study will give them second thoughts. It’s the first study to identify exactly which fossil fuels should be left alone. The list includes most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil, as well as 82% of the world’s stores of coal and half of its natural gas.
The study uses economic modeling to suggest a worldwide budget for how to allocate the use of the remaining fossil fuels. It presents hard numbers for the amounts of known coal, oil, and gas reserves that must be left unburnt if we’re to keep global warming under the “safe zone” of 2 degrees Celsius. In the U.S. alone, 92 percent of coal reserves would have to be left untouched. Investors hunting new stores of fossil fuels would have to kiss their investments goodbye. And that could get expensive.
Which is why it will be important to compensate for economic losses, according to climate change economist Michael Jakob. If, that is, this year’s upcoming UN summit on climate change set for December 2015 in Paris, can produce a hoped-for global agreement. “If you really want to convince developing countries to leave their coal in the ground, you have to offer something else and I don’t think the Saudis will leave that oil in the ground if they get nothing for it,” said Jakob. Sticking to a worldwide fossil fuel budget is a major challenge, for economic winners and losers both, but benefits might accompany the costs. “Some assets will lose value, but others will gain value, like solar and wind power and land for biomass production.”
Whether or not the Paris summit will prove quixotic remains to be seen, but for now, it might make good sense—ecologically and economically—to plant more windmills.