Pip Roddis, Climate Team Policy Officer 

Earlier this year, new numbers were added to the ‘terrifying new math’ of climate change: 82, 49, 33. They come from climate scientists at UCL and published in Nature, in the first study to suggest which existing fossil reserves cannot be burned over the next 35 years if we are to meet the 2°C climate change target.

82% is the amount of global coal reserves that must be left under the ground if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. 49% is the amount of known gas reserves that must be left unexploited. And 33% is the amount of the world’s oil reserves that must be left unextracted.




The study also looks at how this should be apportioned in different regions of the world. It suggests that half of unburnable gas reserves globally, and over half of the world’s unburnable oil, are in the Middle East. Canadian tar sands must remain largely unexploited, with 85% of its 48 billion barrels of bitumen reserves unburnable. Despite large potential unconventional gas resources in China, India, Africa and the Middle East, over 80% of these resources are unburnable before 2050. And perhaps most notably, the paper shows that all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable – revealing the urgent need to halt Arctic fossil fuel exploration right now.

And before you get your hopes up, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) won’t save the day. Because of the expense of CCS, its relatively late date of introduction (assumed to be around 2025), and the predicted maximum rate at which it can be built, CCS has a relatively modest effect on the overall levels of fossil fuels that can be burned – roughly 6% more coal, and 2% more gas and oil.

It is clear that fossil fuel production needs to be phased out. Yet despite this, a clause within the recent Infrastructure Act has introduced legislation to maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum. This is somewhat counter to the present need to transition away from fossil fuels and to prioritise investment in low-carbon and renewable energy, alongside measures to reduce energy demand. This legislation seems to confirm the UCL paper’s comment that ‘Our results show that policymakers’ instincts to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels are, in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments to [a 2°C] temperature limit’.

We urgently need our leaders and policymakers to act upon the challenging new numbers of climate change. The RSPB welcomes the recent announcement by the three leaders of the main Westminster parties to end the use of unabated coal for power generation, and to continue to tackle climate change in line with recommended carbon budgets. However, we need to see a clear timeline for this phase-out to take place. A good start would be for all political parties to outline a manifesto commitment to phase out unabated coal in the UK by the early 2020s, as the Committee on Climate Change agrees must happen in order for us to meet our legally binding climate change commitments. There’s a lot more at stake than just numbers.