Should we leave fossil fuels in the ground to limit climate change?

3 min read

News editor A carbon research organisation claims that more than half of existing fossil fuel reserves should be left where they are to reduce the chance of global average temperatures increasing by more than 2 per cent, while fracking is under discussion in Manchester this week.

More than half of all fossil fuel reserves may need to be left unexploited and global CO2 emissions must be reduced by over five per cent per year over several decades to keep climate change below 2°C.

This stark warning has been issued by the Global Carbon Project, an organisation which aims to develop a clear global picture of the carbon cycle, which yesterday published its annual global carbon budget ahead of the New York Climate Summit that starts tomorrow.

The report predicts a 2.5 per cent projected rise in global CO2 emissions this year, which by the GCP’s data represents 40 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gas.   

It states: ‘Total future CO2 emissions cannot exceed 1,200 billion tonnes – for a likely 66 per cent chance of keeping average global warming under 2°C (since pre-industrial times).

‘At the current rate of CO2 emissions, this 1,200 billion tonne CO2 ‘quota’ would be used up in around 30 years. This means that there is just one generation before the safeguards to a 2oC limit may be breached.’

The report includes a regional breakdown of emissions across the world, with the UK lowering its emissions by 2.6 per cent in 2013, which is attributed to a decline in the use of coal and gas.

Similarly, the EU has cut its COemissions by 1.8 per cent but in China, India and the US emissions in 2013 rose by 4.2 per cent, 5.1 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively.

The Global Carbon Project is led in Britain by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia and Exeter University’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

In a statement, Prof Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre at UEA, said: ‘The human influence on climate change is clear. We need substantial and sustained reductions in CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels if we are to limit global climate change. We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below 2°C of climate change, a level that will be already challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations.

‘Politicians meeting in New York need to think very carefully about their diminishing choices exposed by climate science.’

This sentiment was echoed yesterday during People’s Climate events that took place across 150 countries, including Britain where anti-fracking protesters turned out to voice their concerns.

They were much photographed in Manchester, a city that is hosting its fair share of events this week including Fracking North: Continuing the Debate on Hydraulic Fracturing for Gas.

Those of you in receipt of the September 2014 issue of The Engineer will have read the assertion from Cornell University’s Dr Anthony Ingraffea that shale gas produces ‘only 60 per cent of the CO2 produced by burning an energy-equivalent amount of coal’, although this isn’t likely to appease those protesting shale developments in the north west, including those at Barton Moss where test drilling is taking place. Note, Dr Ingraffea cautions also that all CO2 equivalent emissions over the next few decades must decrease ’to have a hope of not reaching even a 2.5oC warming by 2050’.

Regular visitors to The Engineer will also be familiar with the assertion from AMEC’s 2013 Strategic Environmental Assessment which set out ‘low activity’ and ‘high activity’ fracking scenarios, the latter assuming that a substantial amount of shale gas is produced during the 2020s, between 4.32–8.64 trillion cubic feet, which is up to three times current gas demand in the UK.

Under this scenario, there would be beneficial impacts to the economy, jobs and communities with employment in the oil and gas industry increased by seven per cent, with 16,000 – 32,000 full-time jobs created.

As the organisers of Friday’s event state in their publicity material, environmental activists denounced the report claiming that fracking will bring with it ‘“significant negative effects” such as groundwater contamination, radioactive waste, severe methane leakage, air pollution and climate change’.

Sizewell B, the last nuclear reactor to come online in 1995, wasn’t built without a number of dissenting voices attempting to halt its construction and the progress of the shale industry appears similarly mired by those convinced of dire consequences should full-scale production take place. Safe and reliable operations have done the nuclear industry no diservice over the decades and the frackers will prevail, assuming they’ll maintain similarly high and rigourous standards of safety during operations.