Why do we need to keep 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground?

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Roughly speaking, we are toast if the Earth’s surface temperatures reach something like 3 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

We have already reached about 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial, and we will go higher even if we stop adding more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, because it takes time for the Earth’s system (the oceans, atmosphere, and ice, mainly) to catch up.

It is generally thought that if we don’t keep about 80% of the known fossil fuel, including coal, oil and other oily substances, and gas, in the ground, then we will go past that 3 degree level.

As noted in a recent panel discussion with the Democratic National Convention platform committee:

These numbers vary, and if you look at the literature on this topic over the last few years, you may become justifiably mystified. One of the problems is that people have been talking about a 2.0 degree limit, but with the assumption that we are now closer to 1.0 degree. But we have been beyond that for a long time, if you measure the surface temperature fairly and accurately. Another factor is some confusion and uncertainty (two different things) about the level of surface warming that will occur with a given increase on greenhouse gasses. But even if all this is straightened out, there is still another source of uncertainty. This is the degree to which Earth systems will helpfully absorb some of this extra carbon, or be altered to release even more, because of feedback effects.

Historically, feedback effects have turned out to be positive more often than negative. Here, the word “positive” is bad, because it means that when you release greenhouse gasses, it warms stuff up, and then that causes some extra greenhouse gasses that were previously stored away somewhere to also be released (such as from warmed up Arctic soils). There is no reason to expect that in the future this trend will reverse, and in fact, there are some systems that are likely to become more of a positive (as in bad) effect than they are now. The degree to which this may occur is not clear.

There are two important things you need to know about the 80% limit and its relation to effects on the planet. First, if we meet that 80% limit, things are still going to continue to warm up and change, and things are going to get pretty bad for some people. The difference between staying just under the limit and going well beyond the limit is the difference between things getting bad and things getting so bad that we can start talking about extinction and the collapse of civilization.

The second thing you need to know is that we need to remain skeptical about this number. Among those in the know, who are not deniers of the science, there are very few if any who think this is too conservative, and a good number who see it as not enough. No matter what, we have to constantly monitor what is happening with the climate as well as our energy industry.

This is doable.

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10 thoughts on “Why do we need to keep 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground?

  1. Rolf Aalberg, ask them to cite a few peer reviewed publications, or drink some Roundup – after all, Moore said it was perfectly safe to drink (but then refused to do so himself).

  2. The only thing missing in the article above is a plan for how to fix the problem. There is vast scientific and political (see COP 21 in Paris) agreement on that something fairly drastic has to be done. However, no nation in the world has a plan which is even close to being ambitious enough. Therefore, I have allowed myself to come up with a plan: http://www.giseco.org. The idea is rather simple: if we want 80% of the fossil fuel to remain in the ground, the price of fossil fuel will have to start increasing immediately and rapidly.

  3. Before we can implement elegant rational solutions like a carbon tax, we need to focus on a powerful blocking force which make US engagement in such solutions essentially impossible. That powerful blocking force consists of the political and economic power wielded by the largely fossil fuel owned entity known as the US Government, and its largely scientifically illiterate electorate. Physically well armed with ignorance and assault weapons, this large and abhorrent cohort of my fellow countrymen will do everything they can to block rational efforts to apply scientific knowledge to the preservation of our economy, our environment, and our civilization. So don’t wait for the US. Go ahead and start the revolution without us. We in the US are no longer environmental leaders thanks to the efforts of addle brained, anti-science politicians and power structures going back to Ronald Reagan and beyond. Here in the US, those of us with conscience and brain still need to wrest power from the hands of a regressive, hateful,fear and ignorance inspired bunch of fools.

  4. If we want 80% of the fossil fuel to remain in the ground, the price of fossil fuel will have to start increasing immediately and rapidly.

    INDEED. This IS something that governments can do, and which only governments could do. Get started!!

  5. Henrik Nordborg @ # 3: …if we want 80% of the fossil fuel to remain in the ground, the price of fossil fuel will have to start increasing immediately and rapidly.

    Uh, what?!?

    When the price goes up, drilling goes up. (Take it from a native of the oilpatch.)

    Do you mean that fossil-fuel taxes will have to rise? That at least makes some eco-nomic/-logical sense, though I have no idea how you’d get it through, e.g., the current US Congress.

  6. Yes, taxes. And instead of calling it “fossil-fuel taxes“, we simply refer to it as “renewal-resource jobs sponsorship”.

    Making something that’s socially undesirable go away in America only works if we make it expensive to Americans, who vote exclusively with their wallets (and self-interest).

  7. A paper from 2008 based on emissions from 2005 argued that we already then were committed to warming beyond 2°C.

    On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with
    the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead

    The observed increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) since the preindustrial era has most likely committed the world to a warming of 2.4°C (1.4°C to 4.3°C) above the preindustrial surface temperatures. The committed warming is inferred from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates of the greenhouse forcing and climate sensitivity. The estimated warming of 2.4°C is the equilibrium warming above preindustrial temperatures that the world will observe even if GHG concentrations are held fixed at their 2005 concentration levels but without any other anthropogenic forcing such as the cooling effect of aerosols…Lastly, even the most aggressive CO2 mitigation steps as envisioned now can only limit further additions to the committed warming, but not reduce the already committed GHGs warming of 2.4°C.
    The whole paper is available here:

    As other prominent scientists maintain that a vigorous effort can keep us under 2°C, I’m wondering if anyone knows if this particular paper has been proven wrong. Does a figure below 2°C include the consequences of eliminating aerosol masking?

  8. Can anyone address these notes I have developed?
    In a chart from 1980 to 2009 81% of all countries had increases in emissions. There has been a 25% increase in emissions during that period. That is due to population growth and all the countries trying to improve their quality of life by using more oil, more coal and natural gas. We currently get only .4% of all our energy needs from solar. We get 4.5 percent from wind. Population is growing in 80 percent of all nations. Decreasing CO2 by mandate is impossible. 400 ppmv overall and 3% of that is human. that is 12 ppmv for the entire globe. The US occupies 3% of the land mass on the planet so 3% of 12 ppmv is ours to fix. That is .36% of 1 ppmv. It would cost us billions to lower that by 10%. That means we could only control 3.6% of 1 ppmv. China at 28% of world emissions and India at 9% = 37% coming from those two nations and they are exempt from having to reduce emissions in Kyoto Treaty the USA refused to sign. Cutting our CO2 emission by 50% is a pipe dream. Totally impossible. No chance in hell. You keep talking about we need to do but getting the entire globe to do it is a non-starter. China is over 25% of all emission and exempt from having to do anything. Why waste so much time complaining about problem of which we have absolutely no control. did I mention that the ocean soaks up 40% of ours and methane is exploding globally?

  9. John, most of your numbers are bogus.

    For example, 31% of the current CO2 Level is human caused, not 3%.

    The land area of the US (which is closer to 6%) is not an appropriate measure to suggest how much the US should do.


    As far as what can be produced by clean energy methods, far more than you are suggesting, nothing like a pipe dream. At present, in the US, clean energy investments produce more energy per dollar than fossil fuel, and we have a lot of room (literally and figuratively) to produce quite a bit. There are countries where very large percentages of the energy is non fossil fuel to serve as examples.

    Your argument that there is no way to fix this problem is just another sorry argument from climate change deniers.

    The earth is actually cooling.

    OK, it’s warming, but not much.

    OK, it’s warming, kinda a lot, but that’s natural.

    OK, it’s not natural, but it is good for the planet.

    OK, int’s not so good for the planet, but it will be too difficult to fix.

    OK, we can fix it in the US, but CHINA!!!!11!!

    Sorry, you are just plain wrong. Very, very wrong.

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