BubbleTwo things about a recent UK study called “Unburnable Carbon 2013” got me thinking. Conducted by a non-profit called Carbon Tracker in collaboration with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, the study concludes that the global economy is currently in a “carbon bubble” that’s putting jobs, businesses, investments, and the environment at risk.

First, I find it interesting, and a bit scary, to see our current use of fossil fuels described as a “bubble.” In economic terms, a “bubble” occurs when speculation about a commodity leads to overinflated prices, and it’s usually followed by a crash. If we are actually in a carbon bubble, as the UK research suggests, the effects of its collapse would be pervasive and sobering, to say the least. Carbon-based fuels are behind almost everything we have, do, or consume, so all of these things would be affected. The notion of a carbon bubble also makes me wonder about the prices attached to carbon-based fuels and their associated goods and services. Prices provide governments, industries, and consumers with important feedback and often drive our decisions, but it’s clear that they don’t always reflect real value.

The other thing that caught my attention is the idea that some carbon may be “unburnable.” The UK study comes to this conclusion based on the following observations:

  • To keep the global temperature from rising more than 2oC above pre-industrial levels, the world can only release up to 886 Gt* of CObetween now and the year 2050. [*Gt = one gigatonne = a billion tonnes]
  • The upper limit might get as high as 1075 Gt of CO2, if emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases are reduced.
  • Both of these targets are well below the 2860 Gt of carbon that exists in acknowledged fossil fuel reserves. 
  • The bottom line: at least 60% of acknowledged reserves are “unburnable” if we want to avoid a 2oC rise in temperature.  Allowing for a rise of 3oC won’t make much difference, and extensive use of carbon capture and storage technology will only buy us a little more time.

So, assuming these findings are valid, what are the chances that humanity will leave some fossil fuel reserves unburned, to reduce the effects of climate change? I admit I’m skeptical. People often need a lot of will power to limit their sugar intake when there’s a lot of candy around. But I’m also cautiously optimistic. As people, governments, and businesses become more mindful about prices, bubbles, and global limits, the more likely they are to make wise choices.

The full UK report is available here.