Tag Archives: carbon budget

How Mining Waste Can Help us Deal with Climate Change

Every year, mining and industrial activity generates billions of tons of slurries, gravel, and other wastes that have a high pH.

These alkaline wastes, which sit either behind fragile dams or heaped in massive piles, present a threat to people and ecosystems. But these wastes could also help the world avert climate disaster. Reacting these wastes with carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air solidifies them and makes them easier to handle.

At the same time, carrying out this type of an operation on a global scale could trap between 310 million to 4 billion tons of CO2 annually, according to recent surveys. That could provide the world with a much needed means of lowering atmospheric CO2.

But there are major hurdles. Governments will need to offer incentives for mineralization on the massive scale needed to make a dent in atmospheric carbon. And engineers will need to figure out how to harness the wastes while preventing the release of heavy metals and radioactivity locked in the material…

If regulators verified mines and other alkaline waste producers as CO2 sequestration sites…incentives would skyrocket, companies could claim tax benefits, and industry might start to tackle climate change on the grand scale that’s necessary.

Excerpt from Robert F. Service, The Carbon Vault, Science, Sept. 4, 2020

Banning Gasoline Cars: Better than subsidies and taxes

More than a dozen countries say they will prohibit sales of petrol-fueled cars by a certain date. On September 23rd, 2020,  Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, pledged to end sales of non-electric cars by 2035. Such bans may look like window-dressing, and that could yet in some instances prove to be the case. But in the right circumstances, they can be both effective and efficient at cutting carbon.

Fully electric vehicles are not yet a perfect substitute for petrol-consuming alternatives. They are often more expensive, depreciate faster, and have a lower range of travel and more limited supporting infrastructure, like charging stations or properly equipped mechanics. But the number of available electric models is growing, and performance gaps are closing. A recent analysis concludes that in such conditions—when electric vehicles are good but not perfect substitutes for petrol-guzzlers—a ban on the production of petrol-fueled cars is a much less inefficient way to reduce emissions than you might think.

If electric vehicles were in every way as satisfactory as alternatives, it would take little or no policy incentive to flip the market from petrol-powered cars to electric ones. If, on the other hand, electric cars were not a good substitute at all, the cost of pushing consumers towards battery-powered vehicles would not be worth the savings from reduced emissions. Somewhere in between those extremes, both electric and petrol-powered cars may continue to be produced in the absence of any emissions-reducing policy even though it would be preferable, given the costs of climate change, for the market to flip entirely from the old technology to the new. Ideally, the authors reckon, this inefficiency would be rectified by a carbon tax, which would induce a complete transition to electric vehicles. If a tax were politically impossible to implement, though, a production ban would achieve the same end only slightly less efficiently—at a loss of about 3% of the annual social cost of petrol-vehicle emissions, or about $19bn over 70 years… A shove may work as well as a nudge. 

Excerpts from Outright bans can sometimes be a good way to fight climate change, Economist, Oct. 3, 2020

Buy Carbon Stored in Trees and Leave it There

For much of human history, the way to make money from a tree was to chop it down. Now, with companies rushing to offset their carbon emissions, there is value in leaving them standing. The good news for trees is that the going rate for intact forests has become competitive with what mills pay for logs in corners of Alaska and Appalachia, the Adirondacks and up toward Acadia. That is spurring landowners to make century-long conservation deals with fossil-fuel companies, which help the latter comply with regulatory demands to reduce their carbon emissions.

For now, California is the only U.S. state with a so-called cap-and-trade system that aims to reduce greenhouse gasses by making it more expensive over time for firms operating in the state to pollute. Preserving trees is rewarded with carbon-offset credits, a climate-change currency that companies can purchase and apply toward a tiny portion of their tab. But lately, big energy companies, betting that the idea will spread, are looking to preserve vast tracts of forest beyond what they need for California, as part of a burgeoning, speculative market in so-called voluntary offsets.

One of the most enthusiastic, BP PLC, has already bought more than 40 million California offset credits since 2016 at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2019, the energy giant invested $5 million in Pennsylvania’s Finite Carbon, a pioneer in the business of helping landowners create and sell credits. The investment is aimed at helping Finite hire more foresters, begin using satellites to measure biomass and drum up more credits for use in the voluntary market.  BP has asked Finite to produce voluntary credits ASAP so they can be available for its own carbon ledger and to trade among other companies eager to improve their emissions math. As part of its shift into non-fossil-fuel markets, BP expects to trade offset credits the way it presently does oil and gas.“The investment is to grow a new market,” said Nacho Gimenez, a managing director at the oil company’s venture-capital arm. “BP wants to live in this space.”

Skeptics contend the practice does little to reduce greenhouse gases: that the trees are already sequestering carbon and shouldn’t be counted to let companies off the hook for emissions. They argue that a lot of forest protected by offsets wasn’t at high risk of being clear-cut, because doing so isn’t the usual business of its owners, like land trusts, or because the timber was remote or otherwise not particularly valuable.

If other governments join California and institute cap-and-trade markets, voluntary offsets could shoot up in value. It could be like holding hot tech shares ahead of an overbought IPO. Like unlisted stock, voluntary credits trade infrequently and in a wide price range, lately averaging about $6 a ton, Mr. Carney said. California credits changed hands at an average of $14.15 in 2019 and were up to $15 before the coronavirus lockdown drove them lower. They have lately traded for about $13.

These days, voluntary offsets are mostly good for meeting companies’ self-set carbon-reduction goals. BP is targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. Between operations and the burning of its oil-and-gas output by motorists and power plants, the British company says it is annually responsible for 415 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

Excerpts from Emissions Rules Turn Saving Trees into Big Business, WSJ, Aug. 24, 2020

The Green Climate Fund and COVID-19

 The Green Climate Fund has promised developing nations it will ramp up efforts to help them tackle climate challenges as they strive to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, approving $879 million in backing for 15 new projects around the world…The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was set up under U.N. climate talks in 2010 to help developing nations tackle global warming, and started allocating money in 2015….

Small island states have criticised the pace and size of GCF assistance…Fiji’s U.N. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad said COVID-19 risked worsening the already high debt burden of small island nations, as tourism dived…The GCF  approved in August 2020 three new projects for island nations, including strengthening buildings to withstand hurricanes in Antigua and Barbuda, and installing solar power systems on farmland on Fiji’s Ovalau island.

It also gave the green light to payments rewarding reductions in deforestation in Colombia and Indonesia between 2014 and 2016. But more than 80 green groups opposed such funding. They said deforestation had since spiked and countries should not be rewarded for “paper reductions” in carbon emissions calculated from favourable baselines…. [T]he fund should take a hard look at whether the forest emission reductions it is paying for would be permanent.  It should also ensure the funding protects and benefits forest communities and indigenous people…

Other new projects included one for zero-deforestation cocoa production in Ivory Coast, providing rural villages in Senegal and Afghanistan with solar mini-grids, and conserving biodiversity on Indian Ocean islands.  The fund said initiatives like these would create jobs and support a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Excerpts from Climate fund for poor nations vows to drive green COVID recovery, Reuters, Aug. 22, 2020

The Privilege of Polluting v. Decarbonization

The Paris climate agreement of 2015 calls for the Earth’s temperature to increase by no more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels, and ideally by as little as 1.5°C. Already, temperatures are 1°C above the pre-industrial, and they continue to climb, driven for the most part by CO2 emissions of 43bn tonnes a year. To stand a good chance of scraping under the 2°C target, let alone the 1.5°C target, just by curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions would require cuts far more stringent than the large emitting nations are currently offering.

Recognising this, the agreement envisages a future in which, as well as hugely reducing the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere, nations also take a fair bit out. Scenarios looked at by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year required between 100bn and 1trn tonnes of CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere by the end of the century if the Paris goals were to be reached; the median value was 730bn tonnes–that is, more than ten years of global emissions…

If you increase the amount of vegetation on the planet, you can suck down a certain amount of the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Growing forests, or improving farmland, is often a good idea for other reasons, and can certainly store some carbon. But it is not a particularly reliable way of doing so. Forests can be cut back down, or burned—and they might also die off if, overall, mitigation efforts fail to keep the climate cool enough for their liking. …But the biggest problem with using new or restored forests as carbon stores is how big they have to be to make a serious difference. The area covered by new or restored forests in some of the ipcc scenarios was the size of Russia. And even such a heroic effort would only absorb on the order of 200bn tonnes of CO2 ; less than many consider necessary.

The world has about 2,500 coal-fired power stations, and thousands more gas-fired stations, steel plants, cement works and other installations that produce industrial amounts of CO2. Just 19 of them offer some level of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCSI), an advocacy group. All told, roughly 40m tonnes of CO2 are being captured from industrial sources every year—around 0.1% of emissions.

Why so little? There are no fundamental technological hurdles; but the heavy industrial kit needed to do CCS at scale costs a lot. If CO2 emitters had to pay for the privilege of emitting to the tune, say, of $100 a tonne, there would be a lot more interest in the technology, which would bring down its cost. In the absence of such a price, there are very few incentives or penalties to encourage such investment. The greens who lobby for action on the climate do not, for the most part, want to support CCS. They see it as a way for fossil-fuel companies to seem to be part of the solution while staying in business, a prospect they hate. Electricity generators have seen the remarkable drop in the price of wind and solar and invested accordingly.

Equinor, formerly Statoil, a Norwegian oil company, has long pumped CO2 into a spent field in the North Sea, both to prove the technology and to avoid the stiff carbon tax which Norway levies on emissions from the hydrocarbon industry. As a condition on its lease to develop the Gorgon natural-gas field off the coast of Australia, Chevron was required to strip the CO2 out of the gas and store it. The resultant project is, at 4m tonnes a year, bigger than any other not used for EOR. But at the same time, what the Gorgon project stores in a year, the world emits in an hour.

In Europe, the idea has caught on that the costs of operating big CO2 reservoirs like Gorgon’s will need to be shared between many carbon sources. This is prompting a trend towards clusters that could share the storage infrastructure. Equinor, Shell and Total, two more oil companies, are proposing to turn CCS into a service industry in Norway. For a fee they will collect CO2 from its producers and ship it to Bergen before pushing it out through a pipeline to offshore injection points. In September Equinor announced that it had seven potential customers, including Air Liquide, an industrial-gas provider, and ArcelorMittal, a steelmaker.

Similar projects for filling up the emptied gasfields of the North Sea are seeking government support in the Netherlands, where Rotterdam’s port authority is championing the idea, and in Britain, where the main movers are heavy industries in the north, including Drax.

The European Union has also recently announced financial support for CCS, in the form of a roughly €10bn innovation fund aimed at CC S, renewables and energy storage. The fund’s purpose is not to decarbonise fossil-fuel energy, but rather to focus on CCS development for the difficult-to-decarbonise industries such as steel and cement.

Excerpts from, The Chronic Complexity of Carbon Capture, Economist, Dec. 7, 2019

The Carbon-Neutral Europe and its Climate Bank

The European Union (EU) Green Deal, a  24-page document reads like a list of vows to transform Europe into a living demonstration of how a vast economy can both prosper and prioritise the health of the planet. It covers everything from housing and food to biodiversity, batteries, decarbonised steel, air pollution and, crucially, how the EU will spread its vision beyond its borders to the wider world….The plan is large on ambition, but in many places frustratingly vague on detail.

Top billing goes to a pledge to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050….Current policies on renewable energy and energy efficiency should already help to achieve 45-48% cuts by 2030. Green NGOs  would like to see the EU sweat a bit more and strive for 65% cuts by 2030, which is what models suggest is needed if the bloc is to do its share to limit global warming to 1.5-2ºC.

All this green ambition comes at a price. The commission estimates that an additional €175bn-€290bn ($192bn-$320bn) of investment will be needed each year to meet its net-zero goals. Much of this will come from private investors. One way they will be encouraged to pitch in is with new financial regulations. On December 5th, 2019 EU negotiators struck a provisional agreement on what financial products are deemed “green”. Next year large European companies will be forced to disclose more information about their impacts on the environment, including carbon emissions. These measures, the thinking goes, will give clearer signals to markets and help money flow into worthy investments.

Another lever is the European Investment Bank, a development bank with about €550bn on its balance-sheet, which is to be transformed into a climate bank. Already it has pledged to phase out financing fossil fuels by 2021. By 2025 Werner Hoyer, its boss, wants 50% of its lending to go to green projects, up from 28% today, and the rest to go to investments aligned with climate-change goals. Some of that money will flow into a “just transition” fund, worth €100bn over seven years. Job losses are an unavoidable consequence of decarbonising Europe’s economy; the coal industry alone employs around 250,000 people, mainly in eastern Europe. The fund will try to ease some of this pain, and the political opposition it provokes.

The Green Deal goes beyond the scope of previous climate policies. One area it enters with gusto is trade. Under the commission’s proposals, the eu will simply refuse to strike new trade deals with countries that fail to comply with the Paris agreement’s requirement that signatories must increase the scale of their decarbonisation pledges, known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs, every five years. That would mean no new deals with America while Donald Trump is president; it is set to drop out of the Paris agreement late in 2020. And, because the first round of enhanced ndcs is due next year, it would put pressure on countries that are dragging their feet on these, of which there are dozens—including China and India.

The deal also sketches out plans for a carbon border-adjustment levy. Under the eu’s emission-trading scheme, large industries pay a fee of about €25 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they emit. Other regions have similar schemes with different carbon prices. A border-adjustment mechanism would level the playing field.

Excerpts from, The EU’s Green Deal, Economist, Dec. 2019

The Fight for the Remnant Trees of Europe

For 120 years RWE has been one of Europe’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. The German utility cleared almost all of Hambacher forest, a once-vast wood in western Germany, to mine lignite, an especially filthy fossil fuel, which it burned to generate electricity. What is left of “Hambi” has become a symbol of the anti-coal movement, occupied by activists camping in 80-odd tree houses.  RWE is under fire even where it does not operate. A Peruvian farmer has sued it in a German court for its contribution to climate change that led to the melting of an Andean glacier, which threatens to flood his home. He lost but is appealing.

Peruvian farmer who sued RWE

But  in September 2019, the EU agreed to a €43bn ($47.5bn) asset swap between RWE and its rival E.ON. It turns E.ON into Europe’s largest power-grid operator by assets and RWE into the world’s second-biggest producer of offshore wind power and Europe’s third-biggest producer of renewable energy. [RWE] has vowed to become carbon neutral by 2040

Of the eu’s 28 members, 18 have pledged to emit no net carbon by 2050. Germany says it will stop using coal by 2038 and stump up €40bn to ease the transition.   RWE is demanding a chunk of the transition pot. It still runs three lignite mines, which directly employ 9,900 people and indirectly support another 20,000 jobs in the Rhine region….  [To complicate matters further], in October 2019 a court ordered a halt to the clearing of its remaining 200 hectares of the forest…RWE says the forest could be left as it is—but at a price. It may cost the company €1.5bn or so to find an alternative to a planned expansion of an open-pit mine at Hambach.

Excerpts from  RWE: After Hambi, Economist, Nov. 23, at 59

Climate Change: the Costs of Deep Decarbonization

Nuclear is already the largest source of low-carbon energy in the United States and Europe and the second-largest source worldwide (after hydropower). In the September 2018 report of the MIT Energy Initiative, The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World shows that extending the life of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors worldwide is the least costly approach to avoiding an increase of carbon emissions in the power sector. Yet, some countries have prioritized closing nuclear plants, and other countries have policies that undermine the financial viability of their plants. Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. In the United States, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York have taken steps to preserve their nuclear plants as part of a larger decarbonization strategy. In Taiwan, voters rejected a plan to end the use of nuclear energy. In France, decisions on nuclear plant closures must account for the impact on decarbonization commitments. In the United Kingdom, the government’s decarbonization policy entails replacing old nuclear plants with new ones. Strong actions are needed also in Belgium, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Switzerland, where the existing nuclear fleet is seriously at risk of being phased out.

What about the existing electricity sector in developed countries—can it become fully decarbonized? In the United States, China, and Europe, the most effective and least costly path is a combination of variable renewable energy technologies—those that fluctuate with time of day or season (such as solar or wind energy), and low-carbon dispatchable sources (whose power output to the grid can be controlled on demand). Some options, such as hydropower and geothermal energy, are geographically limited. Other options, such as battery storage, are not affordable at the scale needed to balance variable energy demand through long periods of low wind and sun or through seasonal fluctuations, although that could change in the coming decades.

Nuclear energy is one low-carbon dispatchable option that is virtually unlimited and available now. Excluding nuclear power could double or triple the average cost of electricity for deep decarbonization scenarios because of the enormous overcapacity of solar energy, wind energy, and batteries that would be required to meet demand in the absence of a dispatchable low-carbon energy source.  One obstacle is that the cost of new nuclear plants has escalated, especially in the first-of-a-kind units currently being deployed in the United States and Western Europe. This may limit the role of nuclear power in a low-carbon portfolio and raise the cost of deep decarbonization. The good news is that the cost of new nuclear plants can be reduced through…modular construction shifting  labor from construction sites to productive factories and shipyards…and seismic isolation to protect the plant against earthquakes, which simplifies the structural design of the plant.

Excerpts from John Parsons, A fresh look at nuclear energy, Science, Jan. 2019

Cut or Pay up: Net Negative Carbon Emissions

Sweden’s parliament passed a law in June which obliges the country to have “no net emissions” of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2045. The clue is in the wording. This does not mean that three decades from now Swedes must emit no planet-heating substances; even if all their electricity came from renewables and they only drove Teslas, they would presumably still want to fly in aeroplanes, or use cement and fertiliser, the making of which releases plenty of carbon dioxide. Indeed, the law only requires gross emissions to drop by 85% compared with 1990 levels. But it demands that remaining carbon sources are offset with new carbon sinks. In other words greenhouse gases will need to be extracted from the air

[I]f the global temperature is to have a good chance of not rising more than 2ºC above its pre-industrial level, as stipulated in the Paris climate agreement of 2015, worldwide emissions must similarly hit “net zero” no later than 2090. After that, emissions must go “net negative”, with more carbon removed from the stock than is emitted…

To keep the temperature below a certain level means keeping within a certain “carbon budget”—allowing only so much to accumulate, and no more. Once you have spent that budget, you have to balance all new emissions with removals. If you overspend it…you have a brief opportunity to put things right by taking out more than you are putting in…

Climate scientists like Mr Henderson have been discussing negative-emissions technologies (NETs) with economists and policy wonks since the 1990s. [But] NETs were conspicuous by their absence from the agenda of the annual UN climate jamboree which ended in Bonn on November 17th 2017.

 Reforesting logged areas or “afforesting” previously treeless ones presents no great technical challenges. More controversially, they also tend to invoke “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). In BECCS, power stations fuelled by crops that can be burned to make energy have their carbon-dioxide emissions injected into deep geological strata, rather than released into the atmosphere….

The Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)  technologies that exist today, under development by companies such as Global Thermostat in America, Carbon Engineering in Canada or Climeworks of Switzerland, remain pricey. In 2011 a review by the American Physical Society to which Ms Wilcox contributed put extraction costs above $600 per tonne, compared with an average estimate of $60-250 for BECCS…

Much of the gas captured by Climeworks and other pure NETs firms (as opposed to fossil-fuel CCS) is sold to makers of fizzy drinks or greenhouses to help plants grow. It is hard to imagine that market growing far beyond today’s total of 10m tonnes. And in neither case is the gas stored indefinitely. It is either burped out by consumers of carbonated drinks or otherwise exuded by eaters of greenhouse-grown produce…..

One way to create a market for NETs would be for governments to put a price on carbon. Where they have done so, the technologies have been adopted. Take Norway, which in 1991 told oil firms drilling in the North Sea to capture carbon dioxide from their operations or pay up. This cost is now around $50 per tonne emitted; in one field, called Sleipner, the firms have found ways to pump it back underground for less than that. A broader carbon price—either a tax or tradable emissions permits—would promote negative emissions elsewhere, too…

Another concern is the impact on politicians and the dangers of moral hazard. NETs allow politicians to go easy on emission cuts now in the hope that a quick fix will appear in the future.

Excerpt from Sucking up Carbon, Combating Climate Change, Economist,  Nov. 18, 2017

Don’t Cut that Tree!

A revolutionary new approach to measuring changes in forest carbon density has helped scientists determine that the tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, countering their role as a net carbon “sink.”*

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” said scientist Alessandro Baccini, the report’s lead author….Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects—from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.”

Using 12 years (2003-2014) of satellite imagery, laser remote sensing technology and field measurements, Baccini and his team were able to capture losses in forest carbon from wholesale deforestation as well as from more difficult-to-measure fine-scale degradation and disturbance …from smallholder farmers removing individual trees for fuel wood. These losses can be relatively small in any one place, but added up across large areas they become considerable.

[T] he researchers discovered that tropics represent a net source of carbon to the atmosphere — about 425 teragrams of carbon annually – which is more than the annual emissions from all cars and trucks in the United States.

Excerpts from New approach to measuring forest carbon density shows tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, Woods Hole Research Institute Press Release, Sept. 28, 2017

*Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss by A. Baccini et al., Science, Sept. 28, 2017

The Carbon Bubble

Regulators around the globe are researching potential risks to financial stability from a failure to contain climate change or a sudden collapse in the value of fossil-fuel assets.  Institutions such as the Bank of England, the Financial Stability Board and the European Systemic Risk Board are examining how banks, insurers and pension funds would cope if policies designed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions led to a sharp drop in the share price of oil, gas and coal companies.They are looking at new rules to disclose exposures to both stocks and bonds in such companies, conducting stress tests based on different climate scenarios or even requiring additional capital buffers.

The regulators’ concerns rest on scientific assessments that much of the world’s known fossil-fuel reserves would have to stay underground if governments want to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. If they aim to contain average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, as set out in an international climate deal sealed in Paris in December 2015, the so-called carbon budget would shrink even more.

That…cause selloffs of fossil-fuel companies and broader economic problems caused by energy shortages. In 2015, the Group of 20 major economies asked the FSB to scope out potential vulnerabilities in the financial system linked to climate change.

Not everyone agrees with the regulators’ new focus….Spencer Dale, chief economist of BP PLC and a former executive director for financial stability at the Bank of England says only around 2% to 3% of proven fossil-fuel reserves are actually featured on energy majors’ balance sheets, limiting the danger of a sudden drop in the companies’ value due to climate-change policies. “The idea that somehow that we have a carbon bubble—in the sense that the assets that are currently on oil companies’ balance sheets are overpriced, because they won’t be able to use them—I don’t think makes any economic sense,” he says.

Instead, energy companies should provide more information on how climate change and climate-change policies will affect their businesses and allow investors to make their own assessment, says Mr. Dale. BP and Royal Dutch Shell PLC both backed shareholder resolutions to that effect last year.

Excerpts from  Climate Financial Risks Examined, Wall Street Journal, Apr. 1, 2016

Carbon budget

The Risk of Unburnable Carbon

Several  reports suggest that markets are overlooking the risk of “unburnable carbon”. The share prices of oil, gas and coal companies depend in part on their reserves. The more fossil fuels a firm has underground, the more valuable its shares. But what if some of those reserves can never be dug up and burned?

If governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of that carbon would have to be left in the ground, says Carbon Tracker, a non-profit organisation, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, part of the London School of Economics. Their analysis starts by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide that could be put into the atmosphere if global temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C, the most that climate scientists deem prudent. The maximum, says the report, is about 1,000 gigatons (GTCO2) between now and 2050. The report calls this the world’s “carbon budget”.

Existing fossil-fuel reserves already contain far more carbon than that. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its “World Energy Outlook”, total proven international reserves contain 2,860GTCO2—almost three times the carbon budget. The report refers to the excess as “unburnable carbon”.

Most of the reserves are owned by governments or state energy firms; they could be left in the ground by public-policy choice (ie, if governments took the 2°C target seriously). But the reserves of listed oil companies are different. These are assets developed using money raised from investors who expect a return. Proven reserves of listed firms contain 762GTCO2—most of what can prudently be burned before 2050. Listed potential reserves have 1,541GTCO2 embedded in them.

So companies and governments already have far more oil, gas and coal than they need (again, assuming temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C). Logically, the response to this would be for governments to leave their reserves untouched and for companies to run theirs slowly down, returning more of what they earn to shareholders. Neither of these things is happening. State-owned companies are taking an increasing share of total energy output. And in 2012, says Carbon Tracker, the 200 largest listed oil, gas and coal companies spent five times as much—$674 billion—on developing new reserves as they did returning money to shareholders ($126 billion). ExxonMobil alone plans to spend $37 billion a year on exploration in each of the next three years.

Such behaviour, on the face of it, makes no sense. One possible explanation is that companies are betting that government climate policies will fail; they will be able to burn all their reserves, including new ones, after all. This implies that global temperatures would either soar past the 2°C mark, or be restrained by a technological fix, such as carbon capture and storage, or geo-engineering.Recent events make such a bet seem rational. On April 16th the European Parliament voted against attempts to shore up Europe’s emissions trading system against collapse. The system is the EU’s flagship environmental policy and the world’s largest carbon market.  Putting it at risk suggests that Europeans have lost their will to endure short-term pain for long-term environmental gain. Nor is this the only such sign. Several cash-strapped EU countries are cutting subsidies for renewable energy. And governments around the world have failed to make progress towards a new global climate-change treaty. Betting against tough climate policies seems almost prudent.

The markets are [also] mispricing risk by valuing companies as if all their reserves will be burned. Investors treat reserves as an indicator of future revenues. They therefore require companies to replace reserves depleted by production, even though this runs foul of emission-reduction policies. Fossil-fuel firms live and die by a measure called the reserve replacement ratio, which must remain above 100%. Companies see their shares marked down if the ratio falls, even when they pull the plug on dodgy, expensive projects. This happened to Shell, for example, when it suspended drilling in the Arctic in February….

At the moment neither public policies nor markets reflect the risks of a warmer world.

Energy Firms and Climate Change: Unburnable Fuel, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 68