Researchers warn about the rapidly depleting world coal source

Fareeha Arshad
Photo byPhoto by Nikolay Kovalenko on Unsplash

A recent study conducted by researchers at University College London reveals that the vast majority of the world's fossil fuel reserves must remain unextracted if there is any hope of achieving global climate goals. The study suggests that nations heavily dependent on coal, such as Indonesia and Australia, must abandon 95 per cent of their natural coal deposits by 2050.

Middle Eastern countries must leave all their coal reserves untouched, while the United States must preserve 97 per cent of its stores. The challenge is global, as approximately 90 per cent of all coal reserves worldwide will need to remain in the ground over the next three decades, including 76 per cent in China and India. Scientists warn that exceeding these limits could significantly contribute to global warming surpassing the 1.5-degree Celsius target.

However, it is not just coal that poses a concern. The world must also address 60 per cent of its oil and methane gas extractions, even those already underway. For instance, Canada will have to leave 83 per cent of its oil and 81 per cent of its fossil methane gas untapped by 2050. Unfortunately, even if these goals are achieved, researchers estimate only a 50 per cent chance of keeping global temperatures below the critical 1.5-degree threshold. Our best climate scenarios rely on a coin toss, highlighting the daunting challenge ahead.

These findings represent a significant update to a 2015 study that emphasized the need to leave a substantial portion of fossil fuel reserves untouched. The current estimates are even more demanding, requiring an additional 25 per cent of oil reserves and 10 per cent of coal reserves to remain unextracted to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Moreover, these estimates may still be conservative, as the model does not account for potential feedback systems that could accelerate carbon emissions.

To improve the odds and achieve a greater 50 per cent chance of staying below the 1.5-degree threshold, even more, carbon must be left in the ground. The study's authors argue that the present scenarios likely underestimate the required actions, emphasizing the need to curtail production even faster. While some scientists speculate that renewables and carbon capture technologies could mitigate fossil fuel use to some extent, these views remain controversial, especially given the lack of scalability of current technologies.

The study's model assumes a certain level of carbon capture and removal by 2050, but there are doubts about whether this goal is attainable. The authors suggest that beyond 2050, fossil fuels should only be used for aviation and petrochemical feedstock. Failing to achieve a worldwide energy transition by 2050 exacerbates the climate crisis and poses severe economic risks. Nations heavily reliant on fossil fuel reserves, such as Middle Eastern countries, Russia, and former Soviet states, could experience significant revenue losses if they fail to transition to cleaner energy sources. For instance, countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait currently rely on fossil fuels for 65 to 85 per cent of their government revenue.

Given the high stakes, the authors argue that nations worldwide must urgently implement domestic policies restricting fossil fuel production and reducing demand. These measures could include subsidies, taxes, bans on new exploration, or penalties for polluters. Finding economically viable ways to keep fossil fuels in the ground is crucial, as this is now the only assured method to protect lives and livelihoods.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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