Much of the world’s fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — need to stay underground if humans want to keep Earth from warming to extremely dangerous levels, according to a new report published Thursday in the journal Nature.
As prices plummet at gas pumps worldwide, the report from University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources found that if countries want meet the goal of capping warming at 2 degrees Celsius above the average before the industrial revolution, some of the world’s richest countries will have to resist the temptation to pump or dig such resources from the ground.
Burning fossil fuels expels greenhouse gases, which keep the sun’s infrared radiation from bouncing back into space and trap it on Earth. The widespread burning of fossil, which began about 200 years ago with the invention of the steam engine, started adding carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere at a rapid rate.
Governments are now trying to hash out the details of a United Nations-backed agreement set to be signed in Paris this summer, the result of two decades of debate. The agreement seeks to reign in the release of carbon dioxide.
Some governments in developing countries contend that rich countries, which have benefited the most from industrialization, should be first to adopt renewable energy technologies in a bid to reduce pollution linked to climate change.
“The unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit,” said the report published Thursday, adding that there are three times more resources available than the world can afford to burn.
“Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and 80 percent of coal reserves should remain unused in order to meet the target of 2 C,” the report said.
The researchers said 92 percent of fossil fuels underground must remain buried in the United States, where fuel extraction has seen a recent boom. In the Middle East, 99 percent of fossil fuel deposits must stay underground, the report said.