United Nations

Keep It In The Ground: A Global Carbon Budget

"Globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused."


Ronald Bailey

Marrakech – "Science tells us in order to bring reality to climate change rhetoric, we must keep fossil fuels in the ground," declared Center for Biological Diversity associate conservation director Jean Su. Su moderated the Keep It in the Ground panel at the COP22 U.N. climate change conference. The idea is that in order to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, humanity can only burn so much more coal, oil and natural gas.

How much more? According to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change humanity can only put an additional 870 to 1,240 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050 in order to preserve a 50 percent chance of keeping the global average temperature below the 2 degree Celsius threshold. By one estimate, burning known coal, oil, and natural gas reserves by 2050 would put an additional 2,900 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A January 2015 study in Nature calculated 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."

In a major victory last year, the Keep It In The Ground campaign persuaded the Obama administration to block the construction of the Keystone pipeline that would have transported about nearly a million barrels of petroleum daily from Canada's oilsands fields in Alberta. In his November 6, 2015 statement rejecting the Keystone pipeline's construction permit request, President Obama declared, "If we're going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky."

The current Standing Rock protests against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline was a major touchstone of the Keep It In The Ground panel here in Morocco. The 1,172 mile Dakota Access pipeline would transport oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota. During the session, Indigenous Environmental Network representative Alberto Saldamando read a statement from IEN Director Tom Goldtooth in which he characterized the pipeline as a "black snake threatening the Missouri River" and asserted "we are not protesters; we are protectors of our sacred waters." The Goldtooth statement continued, "The black snake represents a world out of balance which views all life as private property and looks at Mother Earth as without a soul or spirit." Saldamando added, "From a personal perspective, money is bad medicine."

Earlier this week, the Army Corps of Engineers halted pipeline construction near the protest site. The Corps announced that additional discussion and analysis of the project is "warranted in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation's dispossessions of lands, the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe, our government-to-government relationship, and the statute governing easements through government property."

Other Keep It In The Ground panelists included Lidy Nacpil, coordinator, Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development from the Philippines, who denounced the fact that her country is slated to build 45 new coal-fired power generation plants and has approved environmental certificates for 118 new coal mines. Filip Lovstrom, from the Swedish group Youth Platform for Corporate Responsibility Platform Where Youth Cooperate for Sustainability (PUSH) decried the act of taking things from the ground and giving them "a fictional value." He declared, "The century we have before us can be a story of how we failed to live within planetary boundaries, and how we failed to maintain human rights. Or it can be the century in which we create a life worthy of all human beings and while preserving nature."

Swedish Green Party European Parliament representative Max Andersson argued that fossil fuel companies should be thrown out of future COP meetings. In fact, the U.S. delegation at COP22 formally accepted on Wednesday a petition signed by 500,000 people from the Corporate Accountability International group urging that fossil fuel companies be excluded from future negotiations.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the Keep It In The Ground campaign will fare in the United States during the Trump administration. Already, the backers of the Keystone pipeline are suggesting that they will ask the Trump administration to overturn President Obama's decision to reject its construction.

"A Broken Record"

Calm pervades the COP22 U.N. climate change conference. This is unusual. At previous COPs (Conference of the Parties) an air of crisis featuring frenzied denunciations from delegations and activists was the custom as the meetings wound down in their second week. The Paris COP21 last year has been described as the "commitment COP" at which countries hammered out the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and made promises with regard to how they were going to address man-made global warming. COP22 here at Marrakech is supposed to be the "action COP" where countries are supposed to figure out how to get on with meeting their commitments.

So why the tranquility? Two speculations. First, the meeting is still in shell shock over the results of the U.S. presidential elections. Second, and I think more the likely reason, is that the pressure is off. By that I mean that under the Paris Agreement countries do not have to make any further commitments with regard to how they are going to handle global warming until 2020.

For example, at the Keep It In The Ground session, the panel moderator commented on the low energy in the room and asked the audience were their outrage was? Of course, one can always count on predictable sources of ersatz anger. At a Friends of the Earth International press conference on Wednesday, Meena Raman, a representative from FOE Malaysia managed to gin some up and ritually declared COP22 is "a COP of broken promises" and "a COP of postponing ambition." However, Raman herself acknowledged that she "sounded like a broken record." Yes, she did.

Tomorrow: The end of COP22 and the Marrakech Action Proclamation.