The International Energy Agency released its annual flagship publication today, the World Energy Outlook. The IEA made an historic statement in the executive summary.

It said, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal”, the internationally recognized limit to average global warming in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Let me rephrase that.  Over two-thirds of today’s proven reserves of fossil fuels need to still be in the ground in 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change.

We congratulate the IEA for recognizing this crucial point and encourage the organization to prioritize this message in its presentations and public messaging. It is especially important given that the world’s fossil fuel industry is working overtime to increase its proven reserve base.

Let’s take the Canadian tar sands industry as an example. As the chart below shows, the tar sands industry has enough projects producing, under construction and approved to blow well past the climate limits prescribed by the IEA. Nevertheless even more projects are lined up for regulatory approval leading to a possible trebling of production capacity over and above the IEA limit.


tar sands climate limits

Globally, the oil industry as a whole is also lining up enough production capacity to cook the climate several times over.

According to one analysis, there could be as much as 110.6 million barrels of oil production capacity in 2020, while the IEA says that less than 90 million b/d is plenty, see the chart below.


That the IEA acknowledges the constraints on commercializing the world’s proven reserves is helpful, as the agency has a huge influence on global energy policy, particularly in the developed countries of the OECD, where the greatest per-capita consumption is concentrated.

But there is cause for even more caution over fossil fuel reserves than even this suggests.

The IEA’s calculations are based on having a 50% chance of constraining climate change to less than 2 degrees (C). Given that today the world’s climate is warmer by about 0.8 degrees (C) and we are already seeing some intense impacts, including record losses of Arctic sea ice, we may want to do more to ensure we stay below 2 degrees.

Last year, the London based Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated the proportion of proven fossil fuel reserves that could be consumed to have an 80% chance of hitting the 2 degree target. A target which I think many of us would be more comfortable with than one that basically gives us a 50/50 chance of failure. They found that proven reserves are five times over this limit. So some 80% of those reserves would need to stay in the ground.

This is a crucial conversation that needs to be had and we are glad the IEA is starting to engage in it. Especially as high energy prices are enabling new technologies to open up ever more reserves.

The IEA states in another section of the report that discusses the North American oil boom, a subject we will explore in a subsequent blog, that the fracking boom has enabled access to an additional 250 billion barrels of recoverable oil globally that was not in the IEA’s reserves figures in last year’s report.

It is clearly time for a coherent energy policy that keeps some fossil fuels in the ground.

Want to tell the President we can’t afford an All of the Above energy plan in light of this news? Sign our petition here.


  • The great British theoretical physicist and author, Stephen Hawking, when asked why we have not yet been able to detect signals from extraterrestrial intelligent life, responded that perhaps they did not survive long enough for us to hear them. We seem to be on a path to such a fate.

  • So why, despite big increases in oil/coal/gas use and also CO2 increasing, has the global temperature remained unchanged for 15+ years, i.e. NOT gone up. If CO2 was the culprit, temps should have gone up – as predicted by the models. The answer is, as with Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation, that CO2 doesn’t drive temperature.

    Apologies to those who are wedded to the CO2 hypothesis, but it isn’t true. CO2 is a very good heat CONDUCTOR. Fundamentally, it can’t ‘trap’ heat.

  • There is a structural element to this story. If we keep the basic growth economy in place how would we ever stop the continued exploration of fossil fuels? You can’t have a growth economy without oil so to change is to change the foundations and I think we’ll find this almost impossible…

  • This is hilarious our success is going to be our undoing… To think we have a 50% chance of doing this is highly optimistic in my opinion…

  • @ llma630 and any other deniers – WRONG again! ANY carbon compound in gaseous form, contributes to the heat retention capacity of the atmosphere. This has NOTHING to do with it’s thermal conductivity. It can and does act as an immensely effective heat conductor but that doesn’t answer the mail as regards the reflection or retention of solar energy by the planet. In that the directional radiation is from sun to earth, then by your theory CO2 would be improving the capacity of the atmosphere to pass energy quickly and effectively to the earth’s oceans and land masses where more of it would be converted to untenable heat. Either way, you get increased global warming. Give it up! Global warming IS real! Climate change due to global warming IS real! The fact that we are summarily screwed if we don’t engage on the subject IS real… and although you may be willing to take the risk, most of us are not.

  • “Inter Planetary Time Shares”
    Unless you are fortunate enough to have a “Time Share” on another Planet, you had better recognize that we DO NOT live on a Planet with Infinitely Open Space to be used as our PRIVATE PLAYGROUND.
    All Nations survive under NATURE’S, one and only, BIO-DOME, an Atmospherically “Closed System”. Where, if anything is broken or corrupted, it cannot be fixed or replaced! As with our Two(2) most Essential, Un-Fixable and Irreplaceable Components: the Air we Breath and the Water we Drink. Once gone, these two components are, not only Gone, but Gone Forever! Man-Made Pollution, aided by Global Warming -whose causes may be argued but whose presence cannot be, are inflicting, and will continue to inflict, an insidious toll on our supply of Breathable Air and Drinkable Water.
    As All Nations do exist under this one, ALL ENCOMPASSING, BIO-DOME, ergo, when any Nation Pollutes, sooner or later, all Nations will eventually suffer the consequences of that Pollution! The only difference between the Pollution spewed into the air by the burning of Coal in China, or elsewhere, or Here, is the time it will take for that Pollution to accumulate and be moved by prevailing winds or ocean tides under the “DOME”, from China to here!
    NATURE’S BIO-DOME is filling up inexorably, bottom to top, faster than we can pump it out. Even if we could possibly pump it out, where would we pump it to?
    We are becoming a planetary “Titanic”. And that legendary “Iceberg” is getting closer every day of continued world-wide Pollution!
    Due to obsessive GREED and Ignorance, we have long abandoned any and all respect for our Environment. And Mother Nature will never cease to retaliate against our sociopathic disdain for her Balanced Environment. We had better wake up to the fact that alternative, renewable, non-polluting Energy sources are a MUST and are needed NOW! Because Mother Nature never sleeps and she is growing weary of our attempts to destroy the Environmental Balance she worked centuries to perfect!
    There is little question that the petroleum and coal industries, with their Billions of dollars of under ground inventory, will not find any form of Renewable Energy sources to their liking.
    Be that as it may, they, as all us, must accept the Maxim that: “Change is, and always will be, the only constant.”
    Tom Nass
    5th Marine Division – WWII

  • Reducing CO2 emission is a primary concern. Wouldn’t simply switching to natural gas be a huge improvement over petrol? There is a bit of a performance hit but the reduction carbon would be huge.

  • CO2 emissions are rising predominantly because of China and India. If you don’t have those two on board, nothing else will matter.

  • He can also verify if the website of the said company is officially authorized. The company’s mantra listed on their site: “We identify the events being discussed: past, present, and future.

  • Ima: Credibility check:

    CO2 is not a heat conductor, as it is a gas. All gases are poor heat conductors.

    If you Google: ” utube CO2 demonstration greenhouse gas,” you will find several demonstrations (one from Bill Nye with two heat lamps, two thermometers two fish tanks and a tank of CO2) that show the heat trapping done by CO2

  • Reducing CO2 emission is a primary concern. Wouldn’t simply switching to natural gas be a huge improvement over petrol? There is a bit of a performance hit but the reduction carbon would be huge.

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