Fossil fuels and climate change: addressing a ‘confronting’ paradox

The ideas of ‘unburnable’ fossil fuels and of ‘stranded assets’ were two particular highlights of the talk. Socolow argued that despite being supremely attractive, several fossil fuels would need to be left in the ground if the world even remotely attempted to reach any significant climate target. Fossil fuels would therefore, essentially remain ‘unburnable’ – an idea that energy planners, climate scientists as well as policy makers at the international level would have to consider when deciding when, where and which fossil fuels should remain unburnable. Currently, resources (including oil, clathrates, gas excluding clathrates and coal) worth approximately 70,000 GtCO2 are located in the ground. A majority of these resources are identified as unburnable if the world aims to contain global warming to under 3 °C.

Stranded assets include investments such as infrastructure and power plants that are built to capitalise on current fossil fuel reserves, with a ‘business as usual’ mandate. External impositions, including mandatory policy changes focused on limiting climate change, technological innovations and changes in societal expectations of what is ‘acceptable’ will reduce the asset value pre-maturely, thus making them irrelevant and ‘stranded’ over the long-term. The latter has particular significance for investors, risk managers and at a broader level, both developed and emerging economies that continue to ride the ‘fossil fuel wave’.

Yet, focusing on ‘solutions’ alone could be counter-productive for every solution may have its own misgivings and a ‘dark side’. Geo-engineering, technological hegemony and nuclear power, for example, have problems of their own. Finally, while carbon pricing is picking up and more efficient systems for carbon usage are developed, there are compelling reasons to remain optimistic about the future of the planet. At the same time, as the talk highlighted, two fundamental issues remain at the core of the fossil fuel-climate change debate: first, further investigations are needed to ascertain the ‘real’ pace of change that is optimal from both social and techno-economic standpoints, and second, long-term mechanisms that help engage policymakers in this conversation more proactively should be identified and operationalised sooner than later.

This summary article is drawn from:

Fossil fuels and climate change – lessening the damage from the collision. Presentation by Professor Robert H Socolow at The Energy Exchange Series, Customs House, Brisbane, 9 February 2016, available here.

Dr Vigya Sharma is part of the Energy and Poverty Research Group, University of Queensland, Australia.