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The UN’s future scenarios for climate are pure fantasy

Today Monday December 7, DN (Dagens Nyheter – Sweden’s leading newspaper) published a contribution by me in their ”DN-Debate” column regarding the emission scenarios that the IPCC recommends climate researchers use when calculating future temperature increases. In climate research literature one often sees discussion of the scenario families A1, A2, B1 and B2 and in various situations it is common to see this temperature graph:

The scenario family A2 is discussed in my contribution to “DN-Debate” (read article in English below and read it in Swedish on “DN Debatt“).

The first time that we published a report discussing the IPCC’s emissions scenarios was in 2003 when my student Anders Sivertsson presented his diploma thesis (Study of World Oil Resources with a Comparison to IPCC Emissions Scenarios). Both New Scientist (read article) and CNN (read the news article) drew attention to this work. Those responsible for the IPCC report on emission scenarios dismissed our work with the comment/excuse that too much coal exists. Some thought that I should not discuss this question since it does not benefit the climate debate.

In the autumn of 2007 I was asked by the OECD whether I could write a report on future oil production. During this work the task was expanded such that I should also write a report on future emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels (read the report). In May 2008 during the World Transport Forum in Leipzig I had the opportunity to deliver my report in person to Rajendra Pachuri, the current chairperson of the IPCC. Of course, I expected that the IPCC would subsequently want to contact me but they have been completely silent. The Swedish representative for the IPCC has received the report, as have political parties, individual politicians and other influential people around the world – the report is accessible for all. However, nobody appears to have reacted. It seems as though one may not criticise the IPCC.

The EU’s newly appointed Environment Commissioner Connie Hedegaard published the following statement last Saturday in the DN-Debate column:

”There are moments in history when the world can choose alternative paths. The Climate Conference COP15 in Copenhagen is one of the decisive moments: We can choose to take the road to green wellbeing and a more sustainable future. Or we can choose a path to to deadlock and not do anything at all about the climate negotiations, which will leave an enormous bill for our children and grandchildren to pay.”

Many believe that, in purely physical terms, two paths forward exist. One that continues straight ahead as before, “Business As Usual”, and an alternative path that veers off to a transformed energy system where renewable energy becomes necessary. Our research shows that two alternative paths do not exist. The “Business As Usual” path will soon collapse and that means that the path to a new energy system must be built now. Our hope is that the delegates in Copenhagen realise that only one path exists. I am also thinking about my grandchildren’s future.

”The UN’s future scenarios for climate are pure fantasy”

In the year 2000, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published 40 different future scenarios in which emissions from oil, natural gas and coal were specified. In the past 9 years these scenarios have been the guiding star for the world’s climate researchers. The IPCC has described why these researchers should follow them. The scenarios “are built as descriptions of possible, rather than preferred, developments. They represent pertinent, plausible, alternative futures”. Despite the fact that emissions from fossil fuels vary widely between the scenarios, the IPCC regarded all the scenarios as equally likely.

Among these scenarios exist the future horror stories that people such as Al Gore has warned us about. These go by the name of “Business As Usual”. Climate calculations that are based on these emission levels give an average temperature increase of 3.5 °C above 1990 levels by 2100. Some of these scenarios exceed +6 °C.

Globally, human activity generates greenhouse gasses and emissions increase at the same rate as the population increases. Today, 57% of greenhouse gasses come from fossil fuel. The big issue in Copenhagen is future emissions from these fossil fuels. I have a different view of the situation than the IPCC and my view is based on scientific publications from the Global Energy Systems research group at Uppsala University, Sweden. We can now show that almost all of the IPCC emissions scenarios are improbable and that those scenarios described as “Business as Usual” as completely unrealistic. (Ten publications relevant to this article can be accessed from the home page of Global Energy Systems,

In May 2007 the Debate column of Dagens Nyheter [Sweden’s most widely read broadsheet newspaper] published my article on climate titled, “Severe climate change unlikely before we run out of fossil fuel”. An article with the title, “The Peak of the Oil Age” has recently been published in the scientific journal Energy Policy. From the research reported in that paper we can now state that there will be insufficient oil in future since production will decline. Therefore, emissions from use of oil will decline by at least 10% by 2030. This reduction will be even greater if the global economy is negatively affected.

The climate change negotiators main question should therefore be, “How will we use coal in the future?”.

Today’s coal production – hard coal and brown coal – is approximately 3000 million “tonne of oil equivalent” (toe). For the “Business as Usual” scenarios coal production must increase seven-fold by 2100. That is an increase of 600%. In the last 20 years, global coal reserves have been revised downwards by 25%. The most recent case was India that halved its declared reserves. The USA is the “Saudi Arabia of coal” with 29% of global reserves. The former Soviet Union has 27%, China 14%, Australia 9%, India 7% and South Africa 4% of global reserves. That means that 90% of the fossil coal reserves exist in these six nations. We can also assert that the same six nations today produce 86% of the world’s coal.

If emissions of coal are to increase by 600 percent this cannot occur without the USA – that has the worlds largest coal finds – increasing its coal production by the same amount. In an article published in May 2009 in the International Journal of Coal Geology we have studied the historical trends and future possible production of coal in the USA. The production of high-grade anthracite is decreasing while the production of brown coal in Wyoming is increasing. Future coal production is completely dependent on new coal mining in the state of Montana. According to the constitution of the USA, federal authorities cannot force Montana to produce coal. In Montana they do not want to produce coal since the mining will destroy the environment and large areas of agricultural land. If the constitution is changed and mining of coal in Montana does occur it is possible for the USA to increase its coal production by 40% but not by 100%. An increase of 600% is pure fantasy.

Today, the world’s largest coal producer is China. Its reserves of coal are half the size of the USA’s and China has no possibility of increasing its coal production by 100%. A 600% increase there is also pure fantasy. Russia, with the world’s second largest coal reserves, can increase its production significantly but the untouched Russian coal reserves lie in central Siberia in an area without infrastructure. Russia is not dependent on this coal for its own energy needs but if mining did begin there some time after 2050 it could only ever be equivalent to a small fraction of today’s global production. Therefore, it is impossible for global coal production to increase by 100% and 600% is, once again, pure fantasy.

In the spring of 2008 I discussed the climate question with the USA’s then ambassador to Sweden Michael Wood who was interested in our research. My suggestion for a partial solution was that the presidents of the USA and Russia should sign a bilateral treaty in which they guarantee that half of the remaining reserves of coal in each nation would remain unused. The people in Montana would celebrate and Russia’s future would not be affected. The agreement would mean that 25% of possible future emissions of carbon dioxide from coal would disappear.

Our conclusion is that the assumptions of coal use that the IPCC recommended that climate researchers refer to in calculating their future horror scenarios are completely unrealistic. The question is why at all these gigantic volumes of carbon dioxide emission are to be found among the possible scenarios. The IPCC bears a great responsibility for the fact that thousands of climate researchers around the world have dedicated years of research to calculating temperature increases for scenarios that are completely unrealistic. The consequence is that very large research resources have been wasted to little benefit for us all.

That fossil fuel reserves are insufficient to support the IPCC’s horror scenarios may alleviate somewhat our concerns about future climate. On the other hand, we must be even more concerned about future resource shortages. The shortage of oil can, for example, place even greater pressure on the rainforests through increased production of biodiesel from palm oil. The fact that the fossil fuel energy required until 2100 for the “Business as Usual” scenarios does not exist means that the world’s growing population needs a global crisis package to create new energy solutions. We must now – and with immediate effect - change the global energy system.

Kjell Aleklett
Professor of Physics, Global Energy Systems at Uppsala University

(You can make comments on my blog Aleklett’s Energy Mix,

Editorial Notes: EB prides itself on being a platform for different perspectives that are respectful, add value to the discourse, and get people to think. Therefore, the views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the EB co-editors or Post Carbon Institute. While we find that disputes over IPCC's projections of fossil fuel consumption are legitimate, climate changes are happening more quickly and severely than even the worst of climate models previously predicted. (For Post Carbon Institute's position on climate change, please see their FAQs.)

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