Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The Bank of England is the second oldest central bank in the world. (Photo: Captain Robert Fenton/flickr/cc)

Bank of England Issues Warning Over Looming 'Carbon Bubble' Threat

'As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels...may take a huge hit,' predicts one of Europe's oldest banks

Deirdre Fulton

The Bank of England, one of the oldest banks in the world, has joined the growing ranks of those warning of the financial risk posed by a "carbon bubble," which will occur if urgently needed climate change regulations render coal, oil, and gas assets worthless.

"One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left 'stranded' by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels," Bank of England official Paul Fisher told (pdf) the Economist's Insurance Summit 2015 in London on Tuesday. "As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies—a growing financial market in recent decades—may take a huge hit."

Reserves are by definition bodies of oil, gas or coal that can be drilled or mined for financial gain. Currently, regulators allow companies to book them as assets, and on the assumption that they are at zero risk of being stranded—left below ground, "value" unrealized—over the full life of their exploitation.

But several recent analyses have shown that most existing reserves of fossil fuels cannot be burned if global warming is to be limited to 2° Celsius, as the world's nations have pledged. A study in January found that to avert climate disaster, the majority of fossil fuel deposits around the world—including 92 percent of U.S. coal, all Arctic oil and gas, and a majority of Canadian tar sands—must stay in the ground.

Despite such warnings, the Guardian notes, "companies spent $670bn (£436bn) in 2013 alone searching for more fossil fuels, investments that could be worthless if action on global warming slashes allowed emissions."

The newspaper further cites former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who said in 2014: "When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We're staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy."

These economic concerns have bolstered a vibrant and growing fossil fuel divestment movement around the world. As Common Dreams reported in December, "the elite investor class and world leaders have been much slower to admit the Earth has limits to the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases it can absorb."

However, as University of Queensland economics professor John Quiggin wrote last year: "Leaving aside the ethics of divestment and pursuing a purely rational economic analysis, the cold hard numbers of putting money into fossil fuels don't look good."

Since 2012, the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative has warned of how the governing financial system—in its gross over-valuation of fossil fuel reserves—leads to "capital being wasted on carbon intensive projects that are not certain to generate value, and are not consistent with the coming carbon constrained world."

When the Bank of England announced its new research agenda last week, acknowledging for the first time systemic environmental risks such as climate change, Carbon Tracker Initiative research director James Leaton said: "It is encouraging to see this major central bank seeing the need to move with the times and understand its role in dealing with one of the major challenges facing our economies today: climate change. We hope to see other financial regulators around the world responding in a similar fashion and collaborating on this issue."

According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative's calculations, up to 80 percent of oil, gas and coal reserves listed on stock exchanges are unburnable. 

"The six trillion dollar bet is that this calculation remains entirely theoretical, and that fossil-fuel companies will be allowed to keep pumping up the carbon bubble by investing more cash to turn resources into reserves, and continue booking them at full value, assuming zero risk of devaluation," environmentalist Bill McKibben and Carbon Tracker chairman Jeremy Leggett wrote in 2013. "It's a bet that effectively says to government: 'nah, we don’t believe a word you say. We think you’ll do nothing about climate change for decades'."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo