Yesterday, the International Energy Agency released its annual report, World Energy Outlook. The report's release has been covered in most major media outlets, but the headlines have generally focused on the report's conclusion that the United States is undergoing a sea change in production of hydrocarbons and will soon be among the world's largest oil exporting nations, likely achieving energy self-sufficiency by 2035.
What the major media are not reporting, however, or are burying at the end of the articles, is the report's conclusion that if we are going to remain below two degrees of global warming-- the level generally accepted by science and the Copenhagen Accord as "safe"-- we have to leave at least two-thirds of the known reserves of hydrocarbons in the ground. In short, while there are differences in the details, the report effectively endorses the position taken by Bill McKibben and 350.org on the "Do The Math" tour, which either has been or will be coming to a town near you in the near future.
More below the orange cloud of coal dust.
As most Kossacks are aware, the general scientific consensus a few years ago was that the planet could only withstand warming of about two degrees centigrade if it was to remain habitable and still resemble the world we all grew up in. That amount of warming corresponds to an atmospheric concentration of about 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide.
However, about five years ago leading climatologists, in particular Dr. James Hansen of NASA, began warning that based upon the climate impacts we have already seen after only 0.8 degrees of warming, the two-degree/450 ppm figures are too high, and the safe level is probably closer to 1.5 degrees and 350 parts per million. Based on that new information, Bill McKibben, a writer and activist who has long battled global warming, founded 350.org in an effort to raise awareness of the fact that we have already exceeded the "safe" level.
In the July 19, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, McKibben published a must-read article entitled Global Warming's Terrifying New Math. If you have not yet read it, drop everything and go do so. However, the basic point of the article is that even to achieve the two-degree/450 ppm level that is now beginning to be recognized as too high, we can only pump another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The bigger problem is that the energy companies have reserves of hydrocarbons in the ground sufficient to pump 2,795 gigatons worth of carbon dioxide-- five times the safe level-- into the air, and they are intent on burning all those hydrocarbons. Their stock prices depend on it.
McKibben and 350.org are now traveling the country on the "Do The Math" tour to spread the word about these grim hydrocarbon numbers and to kick off a campaign to encourage universities, pension funds, and other large stakeholders to divest hydrocarbon stocks. I saw them in Berkeley last Friday, and they are likely coming to a town near you.
By coincidence, yesterday the International Energy Agency released its annual report, World Energy Outlook. The report contains some pretty amazing new information about the transformation that has occurred in North American energy, in particular the prediction that the US will be the world's largest oil producing nation by 2020, and that North America will likely be energy self-sufficient by 2035.
The WEO finds that the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the United States will mean a sea-change in global energy flows. In the New Policies Scenario, the WEO’s central scenario, the United States becomes a net exporter of natural gas by 2020 and is almost self-sufficient in energy, in net terms, by 2035. North America emerges as a net oil exporter, accelerating the switch in direction of international oil trade, with almost 90% of Middle Eastern oil exports being drawn to Asia by 2035. Links between regional gas markets will strengthen as liquefied natural gas trade becomes more flexible and contract terms evolve. While regional dynamics change, global energy demand will push ever higher, growing by more than one-third to 2035. China, India and the Middle East account for 60% of the growth; demand barely rises in the OECD, but there is a pronounced shift towards gas and renewables.The report itself costs 150 Euros, a bit steep for most Kossacks. However, the executive summary is available here. Notably, the report warns that the window in which to implement the two-degree/450 ppm scenario is rapidly closing:
Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies – as in our Efficient World Scenario – would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.In short, the International Energy Agency has now essentially endorsed the basic proposition that McKibben and 350.org have been advancing, both in the Rolling Stone piece and on their current "Do The Math" tour, that the vast majority of the world's hydrocarbons have to be left in the ground if we are to remain below the two-degree-warming level. Their formulation says one-third can be burned, whereas the 350.org position is that only one fifth can be burned, but they are on board with the basic proposition that energy companies can't burn all their hydrocarbons.
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, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves. Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas. Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia. These findings underline the importance of CCS as a key option to mitigate CO2 emissions, but its pace of deployment remains highly uncertain, with only a handful of commercial scale projects currently in operation.
This is a pretty BFD. The International Energy Agency is not exactly Greenpeace. The IEA was founded in response to the 1973/4 oil crisis in order to help countries co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks to the markets. In essence, they became the world's primary clearinghouse of information regarding energy stocks, potential oil supply disruptions, and the coordination of international industry and government energy policies. Governments and energy companies, among others, turn to their annual report as a source of reliable information on the state of global energy supplies. The fact that they are on board in principle with 350.org gives McKibben and crew a major credibility boost in communities that might otherwise be inclined to dismiss them.
So congratulations both to the IEA and to 350.org, bedfellows who, if not exactly strange, may at least find each other a bit unusual.