Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP
An Alberta oil sands installation.

Alberta Oil Sands Deposits Must Be Left in Ground to Avoid Catastrophic Warming: Study


The Alberta oil sands region is high on the list of fossil fuel deposits that must be left underground in order to avoid potentially catastrophic global warming, a new study has found.

The first-of-its-kind research, published in the journal Nature, identified not only the amount, but also the geographical locations of carbon-based fossil fuels that should not be extracted if the world is to keep global temperatures from rising above a dangerous threshold, said scientists at University College London (UCL) Institute for Sustainable Resources.

“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 temperature limit,” said study lead author Dr. Christophe McGlade, a research associate at the institute, in a statement.

"All politicians worldwide have signed up to this idea of keeping temperature rise below two degrees," McGlade told CBC News. "One of the stark findings to come out of this study was how that is inconsistent with current views that every country wants to produce all of its own reserves and resources. So what we wanted to show was the disparity."

The study, funded by the UK Energy Research Centre, “identifies the geographic location of existing reserves that should remain unused and so sets out the regions that stand to lose most from achieving the 2°C goal,” outlined the UCL statement. “The authors show that the overwhelming majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States should remain unused along with over 260 thousand million barrels oil reserves in the Middle East, equivalent to all of the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia. The Middle East should also leave over 60 percent of its gas reserves in the ground.”

When it comes to Canada, the study found that the oil sands of Alberta should remain virtually untouched in order to stay below the 2°C warming threshold that nations have agreed upon and will finalize in December meetings in Paris this year. Unexploited Arctic oil and gas reserves should also be off limits, McGlade said.

"The study indicates that all of that should remain unburnable if we want to stay within two degrees," said McGlade to CBC News, referring both to the oil sands the Arctic, which Canada has been pondering for development along with several other countries whose territory lies in the region.

This is not the first time scientists have implied or stated that unused fossil fuel deposits should remain in the ground. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last year came to similar conclusions, though without studying or naming specific regions. 

RELATED: Draft U.N. Climate Report Says Most Fossil Fuels Should Stay in Ground

The researchers acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy and would in fact entail a massive paradigm shift.

“The new work reveals the profound geopolitical and economic implications of tackling global warming for both countries and major companies that are reliant on fossil fuel wealth,” the Guardian reported. “It shows trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas, including most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas and much potential shale gas, cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the 2C safety limit agreed by the world’s nations.”

Resource-rich nations cannot have it both ways, the study authors said, since the so-called carbon budget is nonnegotiable.

RELATED: Athabasca Oil Sands in All Their Terrible Glory

“Policy makers must realize that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2°C goal,” McGlade said in the UCL statement. “If they go ahead with developing their own resources, they must be asked which reserves elsewhere should remain unburnt in order for the carbon budget not to be exceeded.”

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