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The Carbon Bubble: Are We Exploring for Fossil Fuels We Won’t Need?

Despite an international agreement to reduce emissions from carbon-intensive sources, oil and coal companies continue to pour hundreds of billions of dollars a year into finding new fossil fuel deposits containing enough carbon to more than double global climate pollution emissions.  

This is the conclusion of a new report finding that $674 billion was spent globally last year alone on the discovery of new fossil fuel deposits that will likely never be used. 

The report, Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets, authored by researchers at the Carbon Tracker Initiative, Grantham Foundation and the London School of Economics and Politics, describes the idea of a "carbon bubble" that is the result of global fossil fuel reserves that already far exceed the maximum amount we can afford to burn and still avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite this growing carbon bubble, and the inevitable movement towards a greatly reduced reliance on carbon intensive fuels in the future, energy companies continue to pour billions of dollars into discovering new fossil fuel reserves. 

If this all plays out as researchers predict, energy companies will end up with a potential $6 trillion in stranded assets that will never be exploited – oil and coal reserves that the world will not need.

It's kind of like buying five cars, when you only need one, so four of the cars just sit and rust in a field. But for oil companies these stranded assets aren't a few old rusty Fords, but instead vast tracks of land of significantly diminished value in a world that no longer requires their product to operate.

According to the report:

"The analysis shows that between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies could be classified ‘unburnable’ if the world is to achieve emissions reductions that mean an 80% probability of not exceeding global warming of 2°C."

This conclusion is based on the most optimistic reduction targets resulting in only 2 degrees Celsius of warming, but even at 3 degrees of warming (a totally disastrous scenario), the report concludes that there would still be "significant restraints on our use of fossil fuel reserves between now and 2050. Yet companies in the oil, gas and coal sectors are seeking to develop further resources which could double the level of potential CO2 emissions on the world’s stock exchanges to 1,541 billion tonnes."

These companies are investing billions and billions without taking into account even these most conservative reduction projections.

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern of Brentford, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said:

“Smart investors can already see that most fossil fuel reserves are essentially unburnable because of the need to reduce emissions in line with the global agreement by governments to avoid global warming of more than 2°C. They can see that investing in companies that rely solely or heavily on constantly replenishing reserves of fossil fuels is becoming a very risky decision. But I hope this report will mean that regulators also take note, because much of the embedded risk from these potentially toxic carbon assets is not openly recognized through current reporting requirements.”

So what about Canada and its tar sands operations?

Are we creating a massive carbon bubble? You bet. I will be exploring this further in the coming days.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?
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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?