Limiting fossil fuel exploration

90% of coal must remain in the ground to prevent global temperature rise, what about oil and gas?
14 September 2021

Interview with 

Dan Welsby, University College London


Smoke emissions and air pollution from an industrial landscape.


According to a paper in the journal Nature this week, the world needs to leave a substantial part of its fossil fuel reserves in the ground, if we’re to stand any chance of curtailing the worst impacts of climate change. In 2015 researchers at UCL estimated these limits. Now, Daniel Welsby is back and he’s taken advantage of more recent research and energy consumption trends to improve on that previous study. Harry Lewis asked him what the figures show...

Dan - 60% of global oil and gas reserves and 90% of global coal reserves need to remain in the ground. In comparison to the 2015 paper, that's nearly a doubling of oil reserves that need to remain in the ground.

Harry - Globally, right now, what does our fuel consumption or production look like? Is it on the rise or is it on the decline?

Dan - It's very regional dependent. For example, in Europe and in the United States, we've seen quite considerable scale back in terms of our consumption of coal, but then that's been almost entirely offset by consumption increases in China and India and other parts of developing Asia. There is no indication from fossil fuel producers to scale back production on anything like the scale that we've suggested. And IEA's net zero report suggests that those trajectories are going up when we need to be going down.

Harry - And your model predicts how much fossil fuel a region of the globe can actually extract from its own reserves. So for some of the big hitters out there, like the US say, what changes in production behaviour do we need to see according to your model?

Dan - Actually the US's average annual decline rate for gas production is 8%, which is a very, very quick decline.

Harry - That's what's needed?

Dan - Yeah, that's what's required.

Harry - What about for the rest of the globe?

Dan - I think probably for oil and for coal, generally, we see the vast majority of regions have reached peak production in 2020. I think probably where this really came through in the modelling was for gas. For example, we saw an average of an 8% decline in US gas production, and in Europe, it's about 7%. That's then offset until 2030 by production increases in places like the Middle East. So, actually, globally between 2020 and 2030, we do have a bit of a plateau, but that's highly dependent on things like, if one region is adding a unit to the global supply, then another region has to do much more than that to ensure that the decline pathway is maintained.

Harry - Sure. And if we do make the suggested cuts and we do keep this amount of fossil fuel in the ground, it's not 100% guaranteed we prevent ourselves from reaching that 1.5 degree Marc up in the climate, is it?

Dan - Absolutely.

Harry - It feels like this is a big ask. It feels like it's too late to stop this stuff from leaving the ground.

Dan - A lot of this is down to political will. We don't really have any time to take another five years discussing reversals of production and things, but hopefully what will happen at COP is that there will be a kind of movement towards a degree of transparency in terms of who is producing different oil, gas and coal assets, how much is out there, and trying to develop mechanisms whereby global production is declining. But then really one of the main messages from this work is that those really heavily dependent regions like the Middle East for oil - they're going to have to start to diversify their economies. And there does seem to be some movement on that. I'm not sure it's looking particularly rosy at the moment in terms of plans and projects to come online as well.

Harry - What are governments putting in place to try and reduce fossil fuels? Because surely that's the one main thing we can do?

Dan - Absolutely. There are shoots of activity -  the banning of new petrol and diesel cars or internal combustion engines in the United Kingdom was announced and DenMarc has refused any new exploration licenses for oil and gas. This needs to be taken to another, I'd say, good few levels.

Harry - What do those, in your opinion, good few levels resemble? What do they look like?

Dan - In the future, it's some form of carbon pricing, which is in place in some regions at the moment, but needs to be expanded globally and kind of ramped up in their incidence.


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