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Climate Change

The Carbon Bubble: Unburnable Fossil Fuels & Investor Risk

Originally Published on the ECOreport

BC Sustainable Energy Association

Business as usual is no longer a viable option for the fossil fuel industry. At the present rate of consumption, the world is heading towards a 6°C rise in global temperatures. Fossil fuel companies are exposing their investors to financial and climate risk. These were among the many topics discussed at the BC Sustainable Energy Association Webinar “The Carbon Bubble – Unburnable Fossil Fuels,” with Mark Campanale of the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative.

Around 197 people attended the webinar, which was hosted by Guy Dauncey.

At the current trajectory, we are expected to hit 2 degrees sometime between 3031 and 2045 – Courtesy the Carbon Trackers

Campanale explained that the fossil fuel industry is currently operating at a disconnect with the approaching reality of climate change. Much of what they believe to be true will be challenged once it becomes apparent that 2/3 of current fossil fuel reserves cannot be commercialized before 2050 — if we hope to keep the temperature rise under 2°C.

There are three possible scenarios for how this realization will occur:

  • Industry will make the necessary adjustments now, which is unlikely.
  • Industry will wait until it is forced to make changes, which could result in a 6°C temperature rise being unavoidable.
  • Investors will help steer their companies into the correct choices.

This third option has already started to happen. The Norwegian Pension Fund has already divested half of the money it had invested in coal. A number of US companies are reducing their investments in the oil sands.

This is important information for Canadians because, as Campanale explains, ”Canada’s reserves of fossil fuels are significantly larger than it’s fair share of a global carbon budget.”

Our proven oil, bitumen, gas, and coal reserves make up 18% of the “global carbon budget” (the amount of CO2 that can be produced before we go over the 2°C threshold) and we may have as much as twice the allowable amount.

That is bad news for people like Premier Christie Clark, who believe BC’s future lies in fossil fuels, because “78% of Canada’s proven reserves, and 89% of proven-plus-probable reserves, would need to remain underground.”

Carbon Constraints from 2020 are expected to impact discounted coal – HSBC Analysis

The coal industry could be one of the hardest hit sectors.

The International Energy Agency estimates that “only 20% of global coal reserves can be developed by 2050″ if we hope to stay within a two-degree temperature rise.

Citi Research argues that it is very likely the demand for thermal coal will flatten, or peak, even in China by 2020.

Production of gas and oil will also need to be reduced. This will hit the more difficult sectors, like the oil sands and marginal LNG fields, hardest.

Exxon, Shell, and Chevron have all been spending at record levels to boost their output, but this has yet to pay off. They cannot continue to spend more just to maintain production levels. The commercial viability of undeveloped reserves is questionable  unless development costs also fall.

The boards of fossil fuel companies must be made to realize that they are wasting their investors’ funds on high-cost carbon projects. There is at least a 20% chance of their falling prey to some future government preventative action against climate change. There is legal liability, as extreme weather events become more common. These are real dangers which are not being disclosed.

The most sensible course of action for fossil fuel companies is to trim back more costly ventures and attune their future course of actions to climate science.

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Written By

is the President of Cortes Community Radio , CKTZ 89.5 FM, where he has hosted a half hour program since 2014, and editor of the Cortes Currents (formerly the ECOreport), a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of British Columbia. He writes for both writes for both Clean Technica and PlanetSave on Important Media. He is a research junkie who has written over 2,000 articles since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.

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