Through David Waltham
As a professor of geophysics, I spent 36 years training young geologists destined to work in the fossil fuel industry in search of oil and gas. But now I think it’s time to stop exploring for fossil fuels and stop the development of all new oil and gas fields. We can’t safely set all the fuel we’ve found on fire, so why look for more?
BP’s annual energy review for 2021 estimates that the world has discovered 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, 188 trillion cubic meters of gas, and nearly three trillion tonnes of coal that are commercially extractable – but which haven’t actually been checked out yet.
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My calculations, based on the typical carbon contents of these fuels and the expected effects of emissions on temperatures, suggest that the emissions resulting from the use of these barrels of oil alone would increase global temperatures by nearly 0.6 ° C. . Using natural gas would add 0.2 ° C more. As for the coal, burning it all would raise the temperatures by an additional 2 ° C.
The conclusion seems clear: if we are serious about limiting global warming (already at 1.1 ° C above pre-industrial levels) to “well below 2 ° C” – as the Paris Agreement on change makes clear climate – we can only burn a small fraction of our known reserves of fossil fuels.
Others have come to the same realization. A recent and more detailed analysis in Nature also concluded that to meet global climate goals, most fossil fuel extraction projects cannot move forward. And in May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) explicitly called for an end to new oil and gas deposits, as well as new coal mines and mine extensions, around the world.
Some countries take this idea seriously. Countries like France, Ireland, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Denmark have already imposed partial or total bans on fossil fuel exploration in their jurisdictions.
And Denmark and Costa Rica have gone further, also launching the Beyond Oil And Gas alliance at the UN climate conference COP26 to encourage more countries to implement similar bans. Although Wales quickly signed up to the alliance, neither England nor Scotland look likely to join any time soon. Although that may change based on recommendations to be offered by the UK government’s climate change committee in early 2022.
Surprisingly, the end of new oil and gas fields could be in the financial interest of fossil fuel companies. Exploring and developing a new area is costing billions of pounds: money that could be saved by not investing in areas that, due to climate concerns, might never be used. Limiting supply also helps maintain oil and gas prices, and therefore the value of existing oil and gas fields.
In contrast, the continued addition of new fossil fuel extraction capacity will cause prices to collapse as climate change actions hopefully lead to a sharp reduction in demand for fossil fuels. Such a drop in prices would not only hurt oil company profits, but would also encourage additional use of fossil fuels and make climate goals even more difficult to achieve.
Ending new oil and gas deposits may also be in the interest of countries that are financially dependent on the export of fossil fuels. The IEA pointed out that if we stopped developing the fields now, most of our oil and gas would still end up coming from oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
However, this message is not being listened to by most players in the fossil fuel industry. While I think the oil industry is preparing for a low-carbon future much faster than most environmentalists believe, current plans for this “energy transition” to renewables still include exploration and development. new fields.
One rationale for further exploration is that carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques, where carbon dioxide is captured and safely buried underground, can help reduce emissions from the combustion of carbon dioxide. fossil fuels.
We know that CCS can help the world go carbon free. And he’s already doing it. For example, in the North Sea, one successful project has been to bury carbon dioxide one kilometer below the seabed at a rate of one million tonnes per year since 1996. However, CCS is unlikely to become widespread enough. to ignore the fact that we have far more reserves of fossil fuels than we can safely burn.
Plans to keep climate change at 1.5 ° C targets typically include CCS, but none envision it as more than a small part of a wide range of approaches. For example, the IEA’s program to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 involves capturing and burying carbon dioxide at a relatively ambitious rate of 7.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. But achieving this would still only allow us to consume an additional 1% of existing oil reserves each year.
Further exploration and development is also warranted by suggesting that less climate-friendly fields could be closed to build new, more efficient ones, producing fewer emissions for every barrel of fuel extracted. But this is not convincing.
We are already seeing owners of prematurely shut down coal-fired power plants demanding compensation for lost revenue, making these shutdown plans expensive to implement and complex to negotiate. Paying investors in the oilfields will be even more difficult and costly. It would be much better for people and the planet if there weren’t any other investments in the first place.
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