Now we know? The present and future geopolitics of climate change

Today, new research published in Nature by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins (both from University College London) suggests that it is possible to model which fossil fuel reserves need to be left unburned if the world is to meet the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) target to prevent the average global temperature from rising by more than 2°C as a consequence of human activity.

Specifically, McGlade and Ekins argue their model suggests that: “globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2°C”. Note, these are all currently existing reserves. As McGlade and Ekins go on to explain, this means that “the development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2°C”.

For those who have been following climate change in the news over the last couple of years, McGlade and Ekins are reinforcing findings that have fast become familiar. In 2013, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, together with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment published a report on ‘Unburnable Carbon’ which found that if the world was to avoid average global warming of more than 2°C, then existing global fossil fuel reserves already far exceed what’s left of the planetary carbon budget (i.e. the amount of carbon dioxide that the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and forests can absorb before temperature rise exceeds 2°C).

This means the US$674 billion spent in 2013 on finding and developing and developing new fossil fuel reserves (including, for example, in the Arctic) could eventually be written off as ‘stranded assets’, as could any future investment in this sector (since these reserves can never be fully developed), providing the basis for what the Carbon Tracker Initiative has called the ‘Carbon Bubble’. The potential economic shock of bursting the Carbon Bubble is currently being investigated by the Bank of England, suggesting that the financial sector is beginning to take this risk seriously.

Yet the real significance of McGlade and Ekins’ research could be its potential to redraw the geopolitics of climate change. In the past, there has been widespread acceptance that even if an international agreement to mitigate climate change is reached, there will still need to be a period of transition as the world’s energy infrastructure is overhauled and set on a course towards a ‘zero emissions’ future.

During this transition, fossil fuels will continue to be burned. As my own research on the Arctic has constantly reminded me, simply arguing that the world must burn fewer fossil fuels generally has little bearing on the decision to develop fossil fuels locally. Even if an international carbon budget was agreed, international corporations and state-owned enterprises would still compete to supply the market with fossil fuels.

Norway, for example, is a strong advocate for an international agreement on climate change, but sees little reason why it should not develop its own fossil fuel reserves to help meet demand during the ‘transition’. The UK, the first country in the world to set a national legally binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, also sees no contradiction in supporting the development of new fossil fuel reserves to help keep energy prices stable – even better if they are developed in Norway where they are more likely to guarantee security of supply to the UK. Profit and energy security therefore create powerful incentives to continue supporting the production of fossil fuels locally. However, the geography of these interests necessarily varies from country to country.

This is why the research published in Nature could be game-changing (albeit for better or worse). McGlade and Ekins explicitly outline their own geography of fossil fuel reserves, irrespective of who profits financially or who is dependent on these resources for energy security. They simply set out how much needs to be left in the ground, and where, all supported quantitatively by detailed data and economic models.

According to their figures, more than half the oil reserves in Canada, the Middle East and China/India needs to be left in the ground, as does most of the coal in the US, Africa, Australia and Eastern Europe. Oil and gas from the Arctic is completely off the table. In producing such a vivid (and indeed material) geography of where, and how much, reserves can and cannot be developed, McGlade and Ekins have in all likelihood irrevocably reshaped the geopolitics of climate change.

It is tempting to argue, and certainly some campaigners will, that McGlade and Ekins’ research has settled the geopolitics of climate change once for all. What matters ultimately, the campaigners will try to argue, is not who bears responsibility for past emissions, but who needs to stop burning fossil fuels in the future. In turn, the international community will need to respond by reconfiguring its energy demands around those fossil fuels which can be burned, while pushing for the rapid uptake of renewable energy technologies.

Such an argument may carry some sway with the environmentally-minded public – indeed it may even feel like the only ‘rational’ course of action. However, contrary to this line of thinking, the geopolitics of climate change will remain far from settled. When international negotiators convene again to discuss the path to Paris, it is highly likely that the McGlade and Ekins’ findings will take centre stage, but not necessarily in ways which are conducive to reaching an internationally binding agreement.

The question that McGlade and Ekins’ research raises is whether new dividing lines will be drawn this year as countries fight to defend their right to develop their own reserves of fossil fuels rather than bear the cost of ‘stranded assets’ and make themselves reliant on security of supply from elsewhere. The connective geographies that link the economic interests and energy security of countries to different fossil fuel reserves will therefore be central to how this debate plays out and as such deserves thorough investigation.

The geopolitics of climate change was already on my list of issues to watch this year – I hope that McGlade and Ekins’ report will encourage others to pay attention as well.

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