Earth News: More than News of the World

Beginning of the Year Special edition

January 9, 2017

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Chimney image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

Sometimes, I urge my students to be “eyes-open optimists,” meaning to base whatever optimism they can muster on our (their) best understanding of the situation. This is a piece I would recommend for anyone interested in understanding the basic predicament we Earth Citizens face with respect to fossil fuels and the urgency we are under to replace them with safe, renewable, and ideally community-controlled alternatives. Your best suggestions for optimism will be most welcome in the comments section!

This is the basic energy information we need as we enter a new year of 365 days of building a more powerful climate justice movement.


I’m a bit of a climate studies nerd, and I love those rare and powerful analytical pieces that lay things out fully and clearly: think Ezra Silk’s Victory Plan above, or Kevin Anderson’s amazing 2012 essay “Climate Change Going Beyond Dangerous – Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope,” or for that matter,  Bill McKibben’s now classic “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three Simple Numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and make clear who the real enemy is” that in large measure got the fossil fuel divestment movement off the ground.

Following in these footsteps, and standing on their shoulders, what this next piece, collectively authored under the auspices of Oil Change International and its allies, does beautifully – starting with its clever title – is present an open and shut case that what the world needs now (besides love) is to leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the tar sand in the land, and the gas [use your imagination to fill in this rhyme]. It lays bare the logic behind Blockadia‘s attempts to stop every pipeline, railway, port, refinery, seafaring oil rig, mountaintop strip mine, fossil-fueled power station – and so much more.

As the Executive Summary states: “Our analysis indicates a hard limit to how much fossil fuel can be extracted, which can be implemented only by governments.” It’s hard to be more clear and simple than that!

Except … it’s up to us in the global climate justice movement and our allies to force our governments to do this. In other words, to use the information and recommendations in this document, we have to nail our leaders to the wall and make them do this [metaphorically speaking, as we are of course, not violent).

Here are the main conclusions, brought to us by the excellent Oil Change International and its allies.

Since I’m willing to bet that even readers who have come this far will not devour the entire report, I present here the long Executive Summary. For the even shorter bottom-line takeaway (this will be on the exam), feel empowered to skip ahead to “A Managed Decline and a Just Transition.”


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The Sky’s Limit report cover

The Sky’s Limit

Oil Change International

September 2016

If you’re in a hole, stop digging

Executive Summary

In December 2015, world governments agreed to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C, and to strive to limit it to 1.5°C. This report examines, for the first time, the implications of these climate boundaries for energy production and use. Our key findings are:

  • The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.
  • The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.
  • With the necessary decline in production over the coming decades to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up at a corresponding pace, expanding the total number of energy jobs.

One of the most powerful climate policy levers is also the simplest: stop digging for more fossil fuels. We therefore recommend:

  • No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.
  • Some fields and mines – primarily in rich countries – should be closed before fully exploiting their resources, and financial support should be provided for non-carbon development in poorer countries.
  • This does not mean stopping using all fossil fuels overnight. Governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it.

In August 2015, just months before the Paris climate talks, President Anote Tong of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati called for an end to construction of new coal mines and coal mine expansions. This report expands his call to all fossil fuels.


The Paris Agreement aims to help the world avoid the worst effects of climate change and respond to its already substantial impacts. The basic climate science involved is simple: cumulative carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over time are the key determinant of how much global warming occurs. This gives us a finite carbon budget of how much may be emitted in total without surpassing dangerous temperature limits.

We consider carbon budgets that would give a likely (66%) chance of limiting global warming below the 2°C limit beyond which severe dangers occur, or a medium (50%) chance of achieving the 1.5°C goal. Fossil fuel reserves – the known below-ground stocks of extractable fossil fuels – significantly exceed these budgets. For the 2°C or 1.5°C limits, respectively 68% or 85% of reserves must remain in the ground.

This report focuses on the roughly 30% of reserves in oil fields, gas fields, and coal mines that are already in operation or under construction. These are the sites where the necessary wells have been (or are being) drilled, the pits dug, and the pipelines, processing facilities, railways, and export terminals constructed. These developed reserves are detailed in Figure ES-1, along with assumed future emissions from the two major non-energy sources of emissions: land use and cement manufacture.

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We see that – in the absence of a major change in the prospects of carbon capture and storage (CCS):

  • The oil, gas, and coal in already-producing fields and mines are more than we can afford to burn while keeping likely warming below 2°C.
  • The oil and gas alone are more than we can afford for a medium chance of keeping to 1.5°C.


Traditional climate policy has largely focused on regulating at the point of emissions, while leaving the supply of fossil fuels to the market. If it ever was, that approach is no longer supportable. Increased extraction leads directly to higher emissions, through lower prices, infrastructure lock-in, and perverse political incentives. Our analysis indicates a hard limit to how much fossil fuel can be extracted, which can be implemented only by governments:

  • No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.

Continued construction would either commit the world to exceeding 2°C of warming, and/or require an abrupt end to fossil fuel production and use at a later date (with increasing severity depending on the delay). Yet right now, projected investment in new fields, mines, and transportation infrastructure over the next twenty years is $14 trillion – either a vast waste of money or a lethal capital injection. The logic is simple: whether through climate change or stranded assets, a failure to begin a managed decline now would inevitably entail major economic and social costs.

The good news is that there is already progress toward stopping new fossil fuel development. China and Indonesia have declared moratoria on new coal mine development, and the United States has done so on federal lands [Editor’s note: this was written before the disastrous 2016 U.S. election]. These three countries account for roughly two-thirds of the world’s current coal production.

In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama rejected the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline by noting that some fossil fuels should be left in the ground, and there is growing recognition of the importance of a climate test in decisions regarding new fossil fuel infrastructure [alas, this too was written before the election]. There is an urgent need to make the coal moratoria permanent and worldwide, and to stop new oil and gas development as well.

Ending new fossil fuel construction would bring us much closer to staying within our carbon budgets, but it is still not enough to achieve the Paris goals. To meet them, some early closure of existing operations will be required. Every country should do its fair share, determined by its capacity to act, along with its historic responsibility for causing climate change. With just 18% of the world’s population, industrialized countries have accounted for over 60% of emissions to date, and possess far greater financial resources to address the climate problem.

Most early closures should therefore take place in industrialized countries, beginning with (but not limited to) coal. While politically pragmatic, the approach of stopping new construction tends to favor countries with mature fossil fuel industries; therefore, part of their fair share should include supporting other countries on the path of development without fossil fuels, especially in providing universal access to energy. Therefore:

  • Some fields and mines – primarily in rich countries – should be closed before fully exploiting their reserves, and financial support should be provided for non-carbon development in poorer countries.

Additionally, production should be discontinued wherever it violates the rights of local people – including indigenous peoples – or where it seriously damages biodiversity.


Stopping new construction does not mean turning off the taps overnight. Existing fields and mines contain a finite stock of extractable fossil fuels. Depleting these stocks, even including some early closures, would entail a gradual transition in which extraction rates would decline over a few decades. This is consistent with a rate of expansion of clean energy that is both technically and economically possible.

We consider a simple modelling of world energy sources under two scenarios: 50% renewable energy by 2035 and 80% by 2045, both with a complete phase-out of coal usage, except in steel production. It is compared with the projected oil and gas extraction from existing fields alone.

We conclude that:

  • While existing fields and mines are depleted over the coming decades, clean energy can be scaled up at a corresponding pace.

While this pace of renewable energy expansion will require policy support, it continues existing trends. In many countries – large and small, rich and poor – clean energy is already being deployed at scale today. Denmark now generates more than 40% of its electricity from renewable sources, Germany more than 30%, and Nicaragua 36%. China is now the largest absolute generator of renewable electricity, and expanding renewable generation quickly. In most contexts, the costs of wind and solar power are now close to those of gas and coal; in some countries renewable costs are already lower. The expansion of renewable energy will be harder where there are weak grids in developing countries, hence the importance of climate finance in supporting a non-carbon transition.

As for transportation, electric vehicles are now entering the mainstream and are on course to soon be cheaper than gasoline or diesel cars. With sufficient policy support and investment, the growth in clean energy can match the needed decline in fossil fuel extraction and use.

While there are clear advantages to clean energy – lower costs, greater employment, reduced local pollution, and ultimately greater financial returns – the transition will not be painless. Energy workers’ skills and locations may not be well matched to the new energy economy. Whole communities still depend on fossil fuel industries. There is a vital need for a careful, just transition to maximize the benefits of climate action while minimizing its negative impacts.

Governments should provide training and social protection for affected energy workers and communities. Where appropriate, they should require energy companies to offer viable careers to their workers in non-carbon areas of their business. Governments should also consult with communities to kick-start investments that will enable carbon-dependent regions to find a new economic life. Waiting is not an option; planning and implementation must begin now:

Governments and companies should conduct a proactively managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it. (emphasis added)


John: It’s not as if we just found out about this stuff yesterday, as the existence of this astonishing newspaper article from the Rodney & Otamatea Times in New Zealand explained the likely consequences of burning the world’s coal, back in … 1912!

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Source: from a Sustainable Business Network Facebook post, reported by Alex Kasprak here.