Letter | Published:

The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C

Nature volume 517, pages 187190 (08 January 2015) | Download Citation


Policy makers have generally agreed that the average global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gas emissions should not exceed 2 °C above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times1. It has been estimated that to have at least a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2 °C throughout the twenty-first century, the cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050 need to be limited to around 1,100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2)2,3. However, the greenhouse gas emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this2,4, and so the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2 °C. Here we use a single integrated assessment model that contains estimates of the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources, and which is shown to be consistent with a wide variety of modelling approaches with different assumptions5, to explore the implications of this emissions limit for fossil fuel production in different regions. Our results suggest 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. We show that 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. Our results show that policy makers’ instincts to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels are, in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments to this temperature limit. Implementation of this policy commitment would also render unnecessary continued substantial expenditure on fossil fuel exploration, because any new discoveries could not lead to increased aggregate production.

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We thank I. Keppo at the UCL Energy Institute, E. Trutnevyte at ETH Zurich, and A.-M. Lyne at the UCL Department of Statistical Science. This research formed part of the programme of the UK Energy Research Centre and was supported by the UK Research Councils under Natural Environment Research Council award NE/G007748/1.

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  1. University College London (UCL), Institute for Sustainable Resources, Central House, 14 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0NN, UK

    • Christophe McGlade
    •  & Paul Ekins


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Both authors contributed equally to this work.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christophe McGlade.

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