Today, the world’s preeminent scientific body on climate change confirmed an extremely important maxim: When you’re in a hole (aka “climate change”), stop digging (for more fossil fuels).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its fifth assessment report today, reminding the world once again how incredibly certain the science is surrounding climate change. The report – a massive undertaking with over 800 authors taking information from more than 9000 publications – is receiving a lot of attention for the certainty with which it now shows that global warming is manmade and dangerous.

But there’s an even more important headline out of this report, especially given how long the science has been settled on the realities of climate change. For the first time, the IPCC has assigned a “carbon budget” for our atmosphere. In essence, the IPCC has now told the world how much carbon we can afford to burn if we want to avoid a truly catastrophic climate crisis.

As reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Bloomberg, the IPCC report shows that we have already blown through a full half of this budget.

The key paragraph is on page 20 of the “Summary for Policymakers” released today, which says that we have a total budget of between 800 and 1000 gigatons of Carbon (Gtc) if we want a decent chance at staying below 3.6 degrees F of global warming. Meanwhile it also says we have already burned 531 GtC, meaning we have less than half of our budget remaining.

Put into terms that most people can understand, the IPCC has confirmed what the International Energy Agency, Carbon Tracker, and many others already have said: We have already taken up a huge amount of our global budget for greenhouse gas emissions, and we have very little room left if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change.

What does this mean? We must keep the vast majority of known fossil fuels in the ground and there is simply no rationale for the continued exploration of new fossil fuel reserves.

It’s widely held that currently proven reserves of fossil fuels contain roughly 3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide (roughly 3/4 of a trillion tons of carbon). That means that the IPCC has determined, depending on a few variables, that we must keep roughly 2/3rds of proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground if we want a decent shot at avoiding catastrophe.

There are a few variables here that could change this figure, such as differing assumptions of how much of our carbon budget will be eaten up by non-energy related greenhouse gas emissions and also just how many tons of carbon are in fossil fuel reserves.  However, these variables are simply nibbling around the edges – the fact remains that we can no longer afford to look for more carbon to burn, and we must avoid digging up the vast majority of what is in our currently proven reserves.

This isn’t actually new information if you’ve been following energy and financial analysts like Carbon Tracker. Even Rystad Energy, an oil and gas consulting firm, acknowledged the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground in a recent report for the Norwegian government.  What’s new here is that this finding is now endorsed by nearly all of the world’s governments, through this IPCC process.

There are a many stark questions that clearly emerge once this finding sinks in, including:

  1. How can we, as a global community, stop fossil fuel companies  continuing to explore and develop new fossil fuel reserves?
  2. Why do our governments continue to subsidize the exploration and development of new fossil fuel reserves?
  3. Why are fossil fuel companies profiting from exploring for fossil fuel resources that science says we cannot burn?
  4. How do we redirect the billions of dollars spent annually on finding new fossil fuels into investment in solutions to our energy and climate crisis?

The first step is to get the dirty energy money out of our politics.  We need government to represent us, not the polluters.  We need a Separation of Oil and State.

Because as today’s IPCC release reminds us: we have to stop looking for, subsidizing, and profiting from the development of more fossil fuels.   

The oil, coal and gas industry is continuing to spend obscene amounts of money in hopes that you, Congress, and everyone who is concerned about climate ignores the most basic and obvious advice there is: when you’re in a hole, stop digging.  Like all those new fossil fuel reserves, its a bad investment.


NOTE: This post was updated on October 1, 2013 to correct a miscalculation related to conversion between CO2 and C figures.

One Comment

  • Dear Mr. Trumball,

    Following up on the article above, can you help me with the maths?
    If 500 GT of carbon are already in the atmosphere, and the currently proven reserves of fossil fuels contain roughly 3/4 of a trillion tons of carbon, they contain 750 GT of carbon. So to get to a maximum of 1000 GT (1 trillion tons) we could RELEASE 2/3rds of the reserves, not KEEP 2/3rds in the ground, correct?

    I am not arguing the necessity to keep the carbon in the ground, but I just want to make sure that i quote the right figures.
    Thanks for your explanation.
    Volker Lehmann

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