Coal, oil, gas resources should remain in the ground to reach Paris Agreement goals – study

Coal mining in Aragon, Spain. (Reference image Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, Flickr.)

Most of the existing coal, conventional gas and oil energy resources in regions around the world should remain in the ground to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C, new research led by the University of Barcelona shows.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, the UB scientists present a global atlas of unburnable oil. This map was designed with environmental and social criteria that warn which oil resources should not be exploited to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The atlas reveals that to limit global warming to 1.5°C, it is essential to avoid the exploitation of oil resources in the most socio-environmentally sensitive areas of the planet, such as natural protected areas, priority areas for biodiversity conservation, areas of high endemic species richness, urban areas and the territories of Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.

It also warns that not extracting oil/coal resources in these vulnerable places would not be enough to keep global warming below 1.5°C as indicated in the Paris Agreement.

New roadmap

In this context, the unburnable oil atlas provides a new roadmap to complement the demands of international climate policy—based primarily on demand for fossil fuels—and to enhance socio-environmental safeguards in the exploitation of energy resources.

“Our study reveals which oil resources should be kept underground and not commercially exploited, with special attention to those deposits that overlap with areas of high endemic richness or coincide with outstanding socio-environmental values in different regions of the planet,” lead researcher Martí Orta-Martínez said in a media statement. “The results show that the exploitation of the selected resources and reserves is totally incompatible with the achievement of the Paris Agreement commitments.”

Global distribution of top-priority unburnable conventional oil resources according to their coincidence with areas of outstanding socio-environmental characteristics
Global distribution of top-priority unburnable conventional oil resources according to their coincidence with areas of outstanding socio-environmental characteristics. (Image from Nature Communications.)

Orta-Martínez pointed out that there is now a broad consensus among the scientific community to limit global warming to 1.5°C to avoid reaching the tipping points of the earth’s climate system, such as melting permafrost, loss of Arctic sea ice and the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and forest fires in boreal forests.

“If these thresholds are exceeded, this could lead to an abrupt release of carbon into the atmosphere – climate feedback – and amplify the effects of climate change and trigger a cascade of effects that commit the world to large-scale, irreversible changes,” he said.

Carbon budget nearly exhausted

To limit average global warming to 1.5°C, the total amount of CO2 emissions that must not be exceeded is known as the remaining carbon budget. In January 2023, the remaining carbon budget for the 50% chance of keeping warming to 1.5°C was about 250 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2).

“This budget is steadily decreasing at current rates of human-induced emissions—about 42 GtCO2 per year—and will be completely used up by 2028,” Lorenzo Pellegrini, first author of the article, said.

Pellegrini noted that the combustion of the world’s known fossil fuel resources would result in the emission of about 10,000 GtCO2, 40 times more than the carbon budget of 1.5°C.

“In addition, the combustion of developed fossil fuel reserves – that is, those reserves of oil and gas fields and coal mines currently in production or under construction – will emit 936 GtCO2, four times more than the remaining carbon budget for a global warming of 1.5°C,” co-author Gorka Muñoa said. “The goal of no more than 1.5°C global warming requires a complete halt to exploration for new fossil fuel deposits, a halt to the licensing of new fossil fuel extraction, and the premature closure of a very significant share (75%) of oil, gas and coal extraction projects currently in production or already developed.”

With this prospect, the authors call for urgent action by governments, corporations, citizens and large investors such as pension funds to immediately halt any investment in the fossil fuel industry and infrastructure if socio-environmental criteria are not applied.

”Massive investment in clean energy sources is needed to secure global energy demand, enact and support suspensions and bans on fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and adhere to the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty,” the team concluded.