New research: Arctic and tar sand oil production is ‘incompatible’ with limiting global warming
- 14 Feb 2014, 13:10
- Mat Hope
Governments wishing to eke out their domestic
oil supplies are increasingly encouraging 'unconventional' fossil
fuel exploration, as new technology allows companies to access
difficult to reach resources. But such policies sit uneasily with
In 1992, countries signed up to United Nations Framework on
Climate Change, pledging to try and prevent the world warming by
more than two
degrees above pre-industrial levels. That means significantly
curbing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the energy
But many governments that agreed to the goal continue to
implement policies which encourage oil extraction. A new
paper by two University College London professors, Christophe
McGlade and Paul Ekins, suggests that's a problem, because
extracting and burning oil emits a lot of greenhouse gases, with
unconventional sources usually emitting the most.
McGlade and Ekins estimate around 600 billion barrels - or 45
per cent - of the world's known oil reserves will have to remain
unused, if the world wants to have a better than even chance of
keeping warming below two degrees.
Estimates of how much of the planet's oil may eventually be
extracted are gradually
increasing as companies develop technology which lets them tap
harder to reach wells.
McGlade and Ekins say such practices are "simply incompatible"
with limiting global temperature rises, however. The researchers
modelled oil production across the world for the next 20 years, and
worked out how emissions from the extraction process and burning
oil sat within a 'budget' that would let the planet limit global
warming to two degrees.
Their results suggest global oil production will have to peak in
2015 at a level only two per cent higher than 2010's production,
before rapidly declining, if the world wants to stay on track for
the two degrees goal.
Financial thinktank, Carbon Tracker, previously
estimated that only 20 per
cent of the world's remaining fossil fuel reserves can be burnt
if the climate goal is going to remain attainable.
The new study continues along a similar path. But unlike
previous studies, it doesn't only estimate how much oil must be
left in the ground but tries to assess when - if at all - the
remaining oil can be produced, and by who.
In particular, the research suggests that opening a new front
for oil in the Arctic is incompatible with hitting the two degrees
McGlade and Ekins say that unless technology which allows carbon
dioxide to be captured and locked away is developed (known as
carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology), there can be "no
production from Arctic oil in any periods". Even with CCS, they say
there can only be "a very minor contribution from Arctic oil
production" in later years.
As such, McGlade and Ekins conclude that "it may be reasonable
to classify Arctic resources as 'unburnable'" if governments are
serious about tackling climate change.
Canada's tar sands
The Arctic isn't the only high profile exploration location
which McGlade and Ekins say should largely be abandoned. The paper
also takes an in-depth look at Canada, where companies are busy
extracting oil from the energy rich tar sands. Environmental
campaigners across the
criticised the practice due to its considerable environmental
McGlade and Ekins say that unless CCS technology is developed
quickly, no oil from the tar sands can be extracted after 2012 if
the world wants to have 50 per cent chance of hitting the two
Even if CCS is developed, they say Canada's oil production can't
reach the levels the Canadian government is projecting if it's
serious about hitting the climate goal.
McGlade and Ekins estimate that about 80 per cent of the oil
that Canada's government says is available would have to stay in
the ground. Though they acknowledge that the government's oil
reserve estimate is probably optimistic, so the figure could be
Unsurprisingly, the research has been welcomed by environmental
groups campaigning against Arctic drilling and the tar sands. It's
inevitable that labelling such oil "unburnable" will find favour
with those calling for stronger climate action, but it's probably
not climate campaigners that need persuading.
The Canadian government, in particular, doesn't seem so
concerned. In 2011, it
withdrew from a treaty that required it to reduce emissions by
six per cent by 2012, and the government recently announced its
emissions are far exceeding a level that would allow it to hit
a new climate goal - perhaps signalling where its priorities
Nevertheless, the new research does highlight the current
mismatch between governments' climate promises and the business as
usual of fossil fuel extraction.
But until the fossil fuel industry is convinced governments will
make further oil extraction unprofitable, it's likely to continue
with business as usual. In that case, supposedly 'unburnable' fuels
will soon be burned.