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As the researchers note, the stark new figures "scientifically groun[d] the growing movement to keep carbon in the ground." (Photo: Peg Hunter/flickr/cc)

The New, New Climate Math: 17 Years to Get Off Fossil Fuels, Or Else

"If you're in a hole, stop digging."

Lauren McCauley

Though it may not have seemed possible, climate catastrophe is even closer than previously thought, with new figures released Thursday finding that—when the wells already drilled, pits dug, and pipelines built, are taken under consideration—we are well on our way to going beyond 2°C of warming.

"If you're in a hole, stop digging," begins the study, put forth by the fossil fuel watchdog Oil Change International (OCI), in partnership with 14 other environmental organizations.

"If our goal is to keep the Earth's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius—the upper limit identified by the nations of the world—how much more new digging and drilling can we do? Here's the answer: zero."
—Bill McKibben, 350.org
The report, The Sky's Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production (pdf), calculates the potential carbon emissions for already developed reserves and transportation projects, such as oil wells, tar pits, pipelines, processing facilities, railways, and exports terminals.

The findings are bleak: "The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world's currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming," the study confirms. "The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C."

"In other words," campaigner Bill McKibben wrote at the The New Republic on Thursday, "if our goal is to keep the Earth's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius—the upper limit identified by the nations of the world—how much more new digging and drilling can we do? Here's the answer: zero."

Similarly, the researchers state unequivocally, "No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them."

As the researchers note, the stark new figures "scientifically groun[d] the growing movement to keep carbon in the ground." The report comes at the same time that environmentalists and Indigenous activists, in North Dakota and elsewhere, are literally risking their bodies to fight oil pipeline expansion, while campaigners across the U.S. dog the federal government for continuing to lease public lands for oil and gas drilling.

The time for "expanding the fossil fuel frontier" is over, McKibben states.

The author and co-founder of 350.org compares OCI's findings to his seminal 2012 essay on the "terrifying math" of climate change, which argued that untapped fossil fuel reserves contained five times more carbon than feasible to burn to stay beneath the 2°C threshold, and concludes that "the new new math is even more explosive."

OCI reportedly paid a hefty $54,000 for industry data from Rystad Energy, a leading oil and gas consultancy, and compares it against carbon budgets derived from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In addition to OCI, the report was produced in collaboration with 350.org as well as Amazon Watch, the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), Bold Alliance, Christian Aid, Earthworks, Équiterre, Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Indigenous Environmental Network, IndyAct, Rainforest Action Network, and Stand.earth.

Report author Greg Muttitt explained that while previous studies only focused on the burning of fossil fuels, this analysis also factored in what carbon budgets and existing extraction operations mean for the supply of those energy sources. "Once an extraction operation is underway, it creates an incentive to continue so as to recoup investment and create profit, ensuring the product—the fossil fuels—are extracted and burned. These incentives are powerful, and the industry will do whatever it takes to protect their investments and keep drilling," he said. "This is how carbon gets 'locked-in.'"

In short, even if a government says it wants to reduce the use of fossil fuels, as long as it keeps approving new infrastructure, carbon will be emitted.

Or as McKibben put it, "It's not that if we keep eating like this for a few more decades we'll be morbidly obese. It's that if we eat what's already in the refrigerator we'll be morbidly obese."

McKibben goes on to calculate some of this "new new" math:

In the United States alone, the existing mines and oil wells and gas fields contain 86 billion tons of carbon emissions—enough to take us 25 percent of the way to a 1.5 degree rise in global temperature. But if the U.S. energy industry gets its way and develops all the oil wells and fracking sites that are currently planned, that would add another 51 billion tons in carbon emissions. And if we let that happen, America would single-handedly blow almost 40 percent of the world's carbon budget.

"If the world is serious about achieving the goals agreed in Paris, governments have to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry," said OCI executive director Stephen Kretzmann. "The industry has enough carbon in the pipeline—today—to break through the sky's limit."

In addition to halting all new infrastructure projects, the report also recommends that "some fields and mines—primarily in rich countries—should be closed before fully exploiting their resources, and financial support should be provided for non-carbon development in poorer countries."

"This does not mean stopping using all fossil fuels overnight," the researchers continue. "Governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it."

Given OCI's assessment that, "If you let current fields begin their natural decline, you'll be using 50 percent less oil by 2033," McKibben estimates that the world has 17 years to replace current fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy.

"That's enough time—maybe—to replace gas guzzlers with electric cars. To retrain pipeline workers and coal miners to build solar panels and wind turbines."

"This is literally a math test," he concludes, "and it's not being graded on a curve. It only has one correct answer. And if we don't get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail."


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