From coal mines to oil reserves, a new report released Monday by a group of leading environmental organizations outlines the world's biggest carbon threats in an era of runaway warming—and the ongoing efforts to keep those fossil fuels in the ground.
The report, compiled by Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and 350.org, examines the carbon risk of deposits throughout the globe that, if developed, would push the world past the agreed-upon 2°C climate threshold.
Released just months after world leaders signed a climate pact at the COP21 negotiations in Paris—and just days after scientists declared 2015 the "hottest year on record"—the report issues an urgent call to stand up to powerful fossil fuel interests and prevent environmental catastrophe.
"With the historic climate accord set in Paris last year, nearly 200 nations from around the world set an expiration date for fossil fuels," said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. "Now we must rise to the occasion by transitioning to 100 percent clean and renewable energy sources, and leave dirty fuels where they belong—in the ground."
In order to curb escalating greenhouse gas emissions and fend off their disastrous consequences, the "overwhelming majority of the large coal reserves in China, Russia, and the United States as well as more than 260 billion barrels of oil reserves and 60 percent of gas reserves in the Middle East must all remain unused," the researchers write in the report, titled Keep it in the Ground (pdf). Arctic resources should also "be off-limits to development," they say.
Quoting Carbon Tracker, a nonprofit financial think tank, the researchers write that the global carbon budget is rapidly reaching its limit. To prevent climate catastrophe, the world can only afford to release a maximum of approximately 565 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 total until 2050. "To limit warming to 1.5°C or below—an ambitious goal stated in the Paris Agreement—emissions would need to be limited in accordance with an even stricter budget," they found.
"If the world's proven reserves are developed before 2050, we will miss even the high-end estimated budget for a 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 2°C—three times over," the authors continue.
The high-risk fossil fuel activities outlined in the report include:
- Australia's planned coal mining expansion, which threatens to emit enough carbon to push us past a 5° to 6°C warming scenario;
- Canada's tar sands projects, which are expected to add 420 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, "a rate equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Saudi Arabia";
- China, the world's biggest CO2 polluter, is on track to produce 4.2 Gt of coal by 2020
- The U.S., which has circumvented tightening restrictions on coal by turning to other cheap and dangerous extraction methods such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is expected to emit a cumulative total of 34 Gt of emissions between 2013 and 2050;
- Throughout Africa, emissions from energy production such as coal will jump from 64 billion cubic meters in 2015 to 193 billion cubic meters in 2035;
- Russia, which is estimated to have 80 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and has signaled it will increase its production rate, even as it warms faster than the rest of the planet, has the potential to release 34.4 Gt of CO2.
However, with such dire circumstances already under way, climate activism has taken on a new momentum, the authors state.
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Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, says one of the simplest solutions is enacting moratoriums on fossil fuel production, a call which has succeeded to some degree throughout the U.S. at the state and local level.
"Instead of blindly allowing destructive fracking to continue in our communities, we should extend statewide fracking bans, like the one in New York, and moratoriums, like the one in Maryland, that will keep dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuels like fracked gas in the ground and invest in truly clean, renewable sources of energy that don’t come with the threat of poisoned drinking water and climate disaster," Brune said in the report.
Meanwhile, activists in Canada are engaging in an ongoing, all-out effort to block planned tar sands pipelines, including launching a "People's Injunction" to prevent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's administration from continuing with what they call a "broken" pipeline approval process.
Monday's report coincides with another new study, conducted by a research team at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and published in the journal Scientific Reports, which found that recent years of escalating temperatures are "extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused global warming."
As 350.org executive director May Boeve said Monday, "Climate change is already bringing flood waters and wildfires right to our doorsteps."
"At this point, continuing to burn fossil fuels is truly lethal," Boeve said. "The effort by fossil fuel companies to dig up and burn coal, oil and gas despite the consequences is the biggest threat our planet faces. All around the world people are now mobilizing to keep fossil fuels in the ground."
Kelly Mitchell, Greenpeace U.S. climate director, added, "The global climate movement is stronger than ever and we’ve seen important progress in the effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground, from Arctic oil to Powder River Basin coal."
"We can’t undo the damage that fossil fuel companies have caused already, but we can prevent further harm and build a more just world in the process," Mitchell said. "Our lives depend on it."