Professor Paul Ekins, lead author of new study on climate change and carbon emission says majority of fossil fuel needs to stay in the ground to hold steady on 2 degrees Celsius target and that the European Union is taking climate change more seriously than the US Congress


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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell is threatening to keep Senate in session until he breaks the Democratic Party opposition to moving ahead with the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. He expects to get the 67 votes he needs to make the Keystone XL legislation veto-proof by President Obama. In the meantime, a new study funded by the U.K. energy research center and published in the journal of Nature makes it clear that globally a third of oil reserves, half of the gas reserves, and over 80 percent of the current coal reserves must remain in the ground if we are to stay below the targeted 2 degrees Celsius identified by the IPCC to limit catastrophic climate change. Now joining us from London, England, to discuss the study is one of its lead authors, Paul Eakins. Eakins is professor of resources and environmental policy and director of the UCL Institute for sustainable resources at the University College London. He’s also deputy director of the U.K. energy research center. Thank you so much for joining us, Paul. PAUL ELKINS, PROFESSOR, RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY, UNIVERSITY COLLEGE : That’s my pleasure. PERIES: Professor Elkins, what are the findings of your study? ELKINS: Well, very much as you’ve described it. We were using a model which for the first time is able to distinguish between the oil, gas, and coal reserves globally and is also able to locate those reserves. And the model then chooses the most cost-effective reserves to exploit, obviously, to satisfy our energy demands through to 2050. That is consistent with carbon emissions not exceeding what would be required to stay within the 2 degrees centigrade guardrail, which policymakers globally have decided marks the threshold of dangerous anthropogenic climate change. PERIES: Professor Elkins, was the IPCC aware of your study and the conclusions you draw? Because you seem to back their findings and recommendations. ELKINS: No, it didn’t, because it’s been carried out since the IPCC published its fifth assessment report. In fact, it drew very heavily on that report, both in terms of the carbon budget that we used in order to identify how much carbon emissions could be omitted in order to stay within the 2 degree centigrade guardrail, but also to identify where those carbon resources were going to be located. PERIES: Now, these are very important findings if we are to get a grip on climate change. Here in the United States, the Senate is now on the verge of approving the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the U.S. to ship shale oil. The bill was once defeated, but with Republicans controlling the Senate now, it is back on the floor. Any advice for them? ELKINS: Well, academics make policymakers aware, as far as they can, by publishing in the scientific literature. And, obviously, Nature is a well-respected journal. You’re quite right in saying that this is an immensely important decision. Huge investments would be made in the XL pipeline if it were to go ahead. And on the basis of our study, it seems very likely that a large part of the Canadian oil or tar sands reserves would need to stay in the ground if we are to meet our climate change targets. And that means that a lot of that investment in the pipeline would effectively be wasted. It would become what is coming to be known as a stranded asset, something which had cost a lot of money to create. But because we couldn’t afford to pump the oil from Canada down into the U.S., it would remain unused. And I think therefore the people who think they might invest in this pipeline need to think twice. PERIES: Right. And is it not even less attractive now to build such infrastructure, because shale is so expensive in the first place to take out of the ground, and the oil prices have fallen so dramatically in the recent months? Is it not cost-efficient anyway? ELKINS: Well, that’s another very important point. The fall in the oil price came after our study. We did do some sensitivity analysis around oil prices. And what that means is that we ran some scenarios with higher oil prices than those that were in the model to start with and with lower oil prices. And exactly as you’re saying, what happens if the oil price falls is that the more expensive oil resources become uneconomic. And in our model that meant particularly Arctic resources, many of which, of course, have not yet been formally discovered. And that’s why they’re resources and not reserves. But also, some of the Canadian oil sand reserves, they are relatively expensive oil reserves. And with the oil price at its current level, it’s very unlikely that new investment in those oil sands is likely to pay off. PERIES: And, Paul, in Europe itself, the South Stream pipeline has been canceled by the Russians, and that’s obviously a positive move. But what kind of hearing are you getting in terms of your findings in Europe? ELKINS: Well, there’s, I would say, increased interest in Europe, both because the European Union is taking the climate-change issue more seriously, certainly, than the U.S. Congress, though not necessarily more seriously than the U.S. president. And they’re therefore more open to messages about the need to keep resources in the ground. Obviously, the Russian situation is very complicated by geopolitical issues, the fact that large parts of Eastern Europe are still very dependent on Russian gas and looking for alternative supplies. But that’s also making the whole issue to do with renewables, wind resources, and solar resources, which are obviously in good supply in many parts of Europe, it’s making them much more attractive, even though at the moment they’re rather more expensive than fossil fuels, because at least there’s no one who can turn the tap off. PERIES: Right. And then in London, Paul, I mean, the study is actually funded by the U.K. government. And your center has put a lot of energy into coming up with this timely report. Is there a hearing there in terms of a U.K. energy policy? ELKINS: Yes, there’s a lot of interest here. I mean, the study is funded by the U.K. research councils, who are indeed funded by the U.K. government, but very much at arm’s length. The government has no influence over the kind of research that is funded. And as you may know, there has been a lot of interest recently in the prospects for U.K. shale gas, very much in the hope that in the U.K. we can have some of the success that you’ve had in the United States with shale oil and shale gas. At the moment, we haven’t really got any resources that have been proved to be economically viable, and the question is whether we go ahead and explore for those and see if they can be proved to be economically viable. There’s been a lot of very unwarranted hyperbole about this on this side of the Atlantic, people seeming to assume that just because it’s happened in the U.S. it must automatically happen in the U.K., despite geological differences, despite socioeconomic differences. And what our study says is that if indeed we do find economically viable shale resources in the U.K., then some other oil and gas resources elsewhere in the world will have to remain unburned, because the carbon budget is a cap. And if we produce resources from here that were not expected to be produced by the model–and indeed the model doesn’t produce them–then we’re going to have to leave other resources somewhere else unburned. PERIES: Right. And these findings will have enormous impact if implemented and you have your hearing, will have enormous impact on countries that depend on oil for their livelihood–Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Venezuela, and many others, Russia included. What is in your–is there anything in your study that addresses these issues? ELKINS: The brief answer to that is no, we don’t look at the geopolitical considerations. Our concern in doing the study was to make sure that policy negotiators are aware of the fact that the resources will need to be not burned and that that will obviously have to be factored into the climate change negotiations that are taking place each year, and the most important ones taking place in Paris towards the end of this year. That’s a very important consideration, because the countries that you’ve mentioned will come to those climate-change negotiations in the awareness that a strong agreement will mean that they won’t be able to exploit their resources. And that will have to be taken into account in any agreement that is reached. PERIES: Paul, I’m wondering if you actually came up with some solutions in your study to carbon emissions, like the proposal for carbon capture. ELKINS: Well, yes, we did. We ran a scenario specifically with carbon capture and storage options, and one without those options. And rather surprisingly, it turned out that the availability of carbon capture and storage did not make much difference to the quantity of fossil fuels that could be burned before 2050. And people were surprised about that, including ourselves, and we asked why was this the case. And there were really two big reasons why this happened. The first is that carbon capture and storage is not yet a commercially proven technology. And so we didn’t think it was realistic to allow the model to take it up at scale until 2025, which is obviously part of the way to 2050 already. And then carbon capture and storage is a pretty capital-intensive technology, it’s pretty expensive, and it’s unrealistic to expect that we could simply build it, enormous quantities of it, all over the world immediately. Industries would have to gear up, and they’d have to acquire experience. So we limited the construction rate of carbon capture and storage out until 2050, and it’s an immensely important technology after 2050. But before 2050, it doesn’t make that much difference to the amount of fossil fuel that can be burned. Only, for example, an extra 6 percent of coal reserves were burned in our technology that allowed carbon capture and storage. After 2050, as I say, it’s a different story. It’s especially important then for burning biomass and sequestering the carbon from that. And that gives you, effectively, negative emissions. But our study wasn’t looking beyond 2050. PERIES: Right. Paul, I know that the agreement that was signed between China and the United States to reduce emission took into consideration the technology or made reference to the technology of carbon capture and storage. Now you’re saying this is essentially unfeasible at the moment. ELKINS: Well, it’s not commercially proven at the moment, and the biggest plants that have been made operational–there was one in Canada that came on stream reasonably recently. It turned out to be very expensive indeed, more expensive than people have thought, which, again, is not surprising for a new technology. But that means that I think our assumption that it’s not going to be widely available before 2025 is a pretty realistic assumption. And I think, too, that our constraints on the growth rate of it thereafter are also pretty realistic. That’s not to say that it can’t play a major role further out into the future beyond 2050. And I think it’s certainly advisable that we develop it as fast as we can. And so I welcome the U.S.-China agreement. But don’t think it’s going to provide a get out of jail free card for burning fossil fuels between now and 2050. PERIES: Paul, thank you so much for joining us today. ELKINS: My great pleasure. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Paul Elkins

Paul Ekins, an environmental economist, is Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London. He is also a Co-Director of the UK Energy Research Centre. Paul Ekins' academic work, published in numerous books, articles and scientific papers, focuses on the conditions and policies for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy. He has extensive experience consulting for business, government and international organisations. In 1994 Paul Ekins received a Global 500 Award 'for outstanding environmental achievement' from the United Nations Environment Programme. In the UK New Year's Honours List for 2015 he received an OBE for services to environmental policy.