IEA Report: Fossil Fuel Boom Is A Climate Disaster In The Making

by Lorne Stockman, via Oil Change International

The International Energy Agency released its annual flagship publication yesterday, 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.

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.

Lorne Stockman is a Research Director for Oil Change International. This piece was originally published at Oil Change International and was reprinted with permission.

21 Responses to IEA Report: Fossil Fuel Boom Is A Climate Disaster In The Making

  1. Mark E says:

    Shame. First get the fossil fuel board out of your own eye; then stigmatize users and especially your friends/relatives who hold stock in FF companies.

    Story: Science mag – Eyes and the Coffeepot

    In Science a couple years ago was as a story about the coin-can at the honor-system coffee service at some office or other. Few put $ in the can. Some clever rascal combined the sign about the honor system with a picture of some watchful eyes….a nd voila! People starting paying for their coffee!

    It is the combination of taxes; regulations; and ((((shame)))) that is reducing smoking. If the other side wants to fight greenhouse gas regulations by using the same tactics they used to fight anti-smoking initiatives….. then we should use the same tactics that won that battle. Shame/Shame/Shame.

    Cant you just see it? Like smoking huts one day we will restrict belching autos to a few parking spots at the least desirable place in the lot.

  2. PeterW says:

    It’s too bad Joe that you seem to be the only one to notice that the IEA made this statement. The media are pathetic.

  3. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Saying we need to leave proven deposits of oil and gas in the ground needs to be said and done, but it goes against our whole history of the use and extraction of these resources. It will require a huge drop in demand by all of us. I see that being the only way, drop demand and you drop the rate of extraction but that has also been the biggest hurtle we face in the fight to stay below 2 degrees. We are not even close to a world concenus on cuts, and are the sacrifices we need to make, because it will not happen without them, going to happen without large climate disruption to move us along fast enough so that we stay at or below 2 degress. From some of the plans for the rebuild after Sandy I don’t think so. The thing you hear people saying the most is “I just want my life to be back to normal”, which is understandable on the one hand and totally unexceptable on the other hand considering the need to make big cuts in carbon pollution. The dichotomy in these two goals is fairly obvious.

  4. The Senate confirmation process is a little unclear. According to Wikipedia, only a simple majority is needed to confirm Cabinet members, and the Dems have that. But is a supermajority reequired to bring the issue to a vote? I recall that it a long time for the rethugs to confirm a lot of Obama’s original appointments. Will that still be an issue? Anyone?

  5. Mark E says:

    Assuming a supermajority is required…. when is the last time either party, in control of one house or the other, actually had to PERFORM a filibuster instead of just neatly saying they intended to do so? A friend of mine recently pointed out that filibusters do not actually happen. The minority party simply tells the majority party that they PLAN to filibuster, and thats good enough. As my friend said, if they are required to filibuster it would be so inconvenient and uncomfortable that the threats of filibusters would plummet and real compromise would happen. A college prof I know only gives in-person VERBAL makeup exams. And guess what? The requests for make up exams fell by an order of magnitude.

    So I do not know…. but if a supermajority is in fact required, let em filibuster all they want. With their diapers or catheters in place.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There is at least one other way the stuff will stay in the ground or be used much more slowly and we will see it play out in the next few years. Mines etc do not work when they are flooded or on fire or have their equipment blown away. Repair and replacement take time and money and will eventually become non-commercial. And you don’t need to generate much power when millions are blacked out, which is already becoming a more frequent occurrence, ME

  7. This was reported in today’s NY Times, which also quoted the IEA head as saying that the world must reach an agreement to limit emissions by 2017 in order to keep emissions down to the level that gives us a 50-50 chance of keeping warming to 2 degrees C.

    2017 seems to be a key date to remember.

    Of course, it would be even better to have an earlier agreement that would give us an 80% chance.

  8. CW says:

    A lot of folks are asking me, “So where did Peak Oil go?”. I have an answer but would be happy to read your take Joe.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The MSM are malignant.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Add in the effect of ‘global dimming’ and we already have 2 degrees Celsius locked in. And the forcings and feedbacks of anthropogenic emissions and dying forest, mega-fires, peat fires, thawing permafrost and melting clathrates mean that we are already stuffed. We need massive albedo restoration, but not in the stratosphere, massive reforestation (if the trees can grow and thrive) and every type of sequestration through natural means, and safe artifical means if invented, and we need it now and with unlimited financing. There’d be lots of money in it for the greedheads, too.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One or two or a dozen, might perish from their exertions. Damn pity!

  12. John McCormick says:

    Phil, one Senator can place a “hold” on a confirmation vote for any reason. The Senator need not b e identified and soon the press will report the reason for the hold. It happens all the time and particularly for confirmation of justices.

  13. Mark E says:

    How many senate votes are required to change the senate rules?

  14. nnoxks says:

    Interesting isn’t it? In the midst of all this talk about the US being the new Saudi Arabia, oil remains 400% more expensive than it was ten years ago. The actual supply remains on a plateau. And the world economy still ain’t doin’ too great, is it? I wonder, if we were seeing the first effects of a peak in oil, what would it look like? Seems to me it would look a hell of a lot like the last five years. Time will tell. But boy will people be shocked if supply begins an inexorable decline. Almost as shocked as they will be when they realize climate change is not, after all, a hoax. And similarly to the climate change problem, it will be too late. Interesting times.

  15. From Peru says:

    And what about peak oil?

    Didn’t global petroleum production hit a plateau since 2005?

  16. Peak Oil is just not, has never been, an issue with scientific standing comparable to our current understanding of climate change.

  17. nnoxks says:

    I’m not sure what you mean. If you mean oil depletion has questionable status as a scientific description of the physical world, you are incorrect. If you mean oil depletion has received less attention than climate change, you are correct. If you mean that particular predictions regarding the exact date of world production decline lack sufficient data to be trustworthy, I agree with that as well. So what is your point?

  18. AlC says:

    L. A. Times at least mentioned the temperature increase associated with burning all this, although it was more buried on the second day.,0,6181922.story

    “Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will creep up, causing a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius.”,0,5693478.story

    “Some energy experts said the U.S. oil production boom carried environmental consequences. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will creep up, according to the IEA report, causing a long-term average temperature increase of about 6.5 degrees.”

  19. John McCormick says:


    Democrats don’t have the 51 votes they need in the Senate to change filibuster rules that could make it harder for the GOP minority to wield power in the upper chamber.

    Lawmakers leading the charge acknowledge they remain short, but express optimism they’ll hit their goal.

    “I haven’t counted 51 just yet, but we’re working,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a leading proponent of the so-called constitutional or “nuclear” option, in which Senate rules could be changed by a majority vote.

  20. Jim Bush says:

    CO2 is a pro-life issue. An estimated 150,000 to 300,000 additional humans are dying each year, because the additional CO2 has made storms worse, deserts drier, etc.

    It’s also bad for the economy; ask the insurance industry.

    Also, the accelerated fuelishness promoted by the oil industry would increase the economic drain on the rest of US. The amount of energy and capital input required by each barrel of oil has been increasing over the years.

    In the early days, producing 100 barrels of conventional oil required only 1 barrel of input. Now, it’s more than 10. For oil from shale, etc., it’s 20 or so.

    Each additional barrel costs more than the previous barrel, because it’s harder to extract and refine.

    Reducing fuelishness will improve OUR lives!
    God Bless America!

  21. perceptiventity says:

    Are the climate deniers right? Are some scientists colluding with government to hide the truth about climate change? “Yes”, according to top British scientist Kevin Anderson – but not the scandal you’ve heard about. Top scientists and government reports won’t tell you we are heading toward catastrophic climate change. Emissions are skidding out of control, leading us to a world six degrees Centigrade hotter on average, much faster than anyone thought possible. Why doesn’t the public know?

    Why are world conferences still talking about staying below 2 degrees, as though that is possible?

    In a devastating speech at Bristol University Tuesday November 6th, 2012, Dr. Kevin Anderson accused too many climate scientists of keeping quiet about the unrealistic assessments put out by governments, and our awful odds of reaching global warming far above the proposed 2 degree safe point.