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The future of fossil fuels

World Coal,

In January, University College London (UCL) released research that suggested that less than a fifth of the world’s existing coal reserves can be burnt if the world wants to avoid dangerous global warming.

“We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2°C limit”, said Christophe McGlade at UCL. The new study is the first to reveal which fuels from which countries would have to be abandoned. It also suggests that carbon capture technology makes little difference to the amount of coal, oil and gas deemed unburnable.

More recently, some industry experts have spoken out against the report’s conclusions. Ben van Beurden, the Chairman of Shell, has accused the theory’s proponents of peddling naïve solutions to climate change. “Provoking a sudden death of fossil fuels isn’t a plausible plan,” he insists.

Tim Yeo, Conservative MP, holds a contrary view: “I do believe the problem of stranded assets [where fossil fuels are rendered worthless because they cannot be burned in a world threatened by global warming] is a real one now. Investors are starting to think by 2030 the world will be in such a panic about climate change that either by law or by price it will be very hard to burn fossil fuels on anything like the scale we are doing at the moment”.

“Nobody’s saying we will end fossil fuel use overnight”, suggests Green MP Caroline Lucas. “But Shell is clearly in denial about the urgency and feasibility of a rapid transition to a zero carbon energy system”.

Yet Van Beurden’s argument is more nuanced that his critics purport. The Shell executive highlights that energy demand is accelerating rapidly, with rising populations, increasing urbanization and economic development. Renewable energy is currently not capable of meeting this demand. “The issue is how to balance one moral obligation, energy access for all, against the other: fighting climate change. We still need fossil fuels for a lower carbon, higher energy future,” he argues.

Written by Emma McAleavey.

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