Developing Unconventional Fossil Fuels – A Poor Investment?

Taking a list of fourteen prominent new fuel sources, a new Greenpeace/Ecofys white paper by Wouter Meindertsma and Kornelis Blok argues that their development hastens the subsequent need for CO2 reductions for a given level of consequence by five to eight years.

Until 2050, a “carbon budget” of 1550 billion tonnes CO2e is still available if we want to of keep global warming below 2 °C with a 50% probability. For a 75% probability to stay below 2 °C this budget is only 1050 billion tonnes CO2e. So, the new fossil fuel developments identified in this report consume 20 – 33% of the remaining carbon budget until 2050.
In a scenario where the new fossil fuels are developed, we need to embark on a rapid emission reductions pathway at the latest in 2019 in order to meet the 50% probability carbon budget. Avoiding the development of new fossil fuels will give us until 2025 to start further rapid emission reductions.

These calculations are based on the assumption that the maximum emission reduction rate is 4% per year and that the maximum change in emission trend is 0.5 percentage point per year. The starting year for rapid emission reductions depends on the choice of these parameters. A sensitivity analysis shows that, in all cases, refraining from new fossil fuel development allows for a delay of 5 to 8 years before we should embark on a rapid emission reduction pathway.

The high investments required for developing new fossil fuels lead to a lock in effect; once developed, these fossil fuels need to be exploited for several decades in order to recuperate investment costs. Since emission reductions need to start soon, i.e. within the next decade, recuperating these costs will be difficult. This will either lead to destruction of capital or not staying within the carbon budget.

In short, developing new fossil fuels makes it necessary to start reductions at an earlier date than not developing new fossil fuels. Developing new fossil fuels makes it difficult to start these reductions since stopping production of the fuels would lead to investment costs not being recovered. The combination of these two effects makes developing new fossil fuels not only a negative influence on the climate but also a bad investment; their development of new fossil fuels makes it necessary to start maximum emission reductions earlier, while at the same time making it impossible to recuperate investment when this is done and production is stopped

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