A Good Match: Countries’ Fossil Fuel Reserves and Their Climate Policy

In a recent post I quoted from an article by Bill McKibben who argues that the resistance of the fossil fuel industry against climate policy comes from not wanting to get their trillions worth of fossil fuel reserves devalued.

If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.

Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela). (…)

ExxonMobil last week reported its 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in 2008 at $45 billion.

Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing. That’s why the fight is so pitched. That’s why those of us battling for the future need to raise our game.

Now Duncan Clark has taken a look at how countries’ fossil fuel reserves match with their positions on climate policy. The result – quite a lot – is not surprising. It was always clear that Saudi Arabia’s position is determined by its oil and Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol is due to its tar sands. Still, it’s quite interesting.

For example, the about 40 progressive countries of the “Cartagena Dialogue” account for only 20% of gobal fossil fuel reserves. If one leaves out Australia, it’s only 14%. And climate policy in Australia has indeed had a very hard time. The Conservative government that was in power until 2007 refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. And while the Labour government recently managed to pass climate legislation after years of wrangling, the opposition’s leader vowed a “blood oath” to repeal this legislation as soon as his party got back in office. And the plan for complying with the new legislation seems to be to mainly to buy carbon offsets from abroad rather than reducing emissions at home.

As for the less than helpful countries,

Again, this is by no means an exact science, so let’s just pick a handful of prominent countries: the US, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Russia. If my data is correct, these six nations contain almost 60% of the world’s potential fossil-fuel CO2. (…)

Any global deal worth its salt will – if successful – force the world to leave most of its oil, coal and gas in the ground, either forever or at least for decades until carbon capture is widely available. So it’s only common sense that the governments sitting on the biggest reserves may also be the ones most nervous about signing up for a deal ambitious enough to solve the problem.

Of course, reserves alone don’t tell the whole story. All sorts of conflicting priorities and agendas help shape a country’s position on climate change. And – an important caveat – the trends don’t look quite so clear cut if you do the breakdown on a per-person basis. The yes camp still come in well below average (around 200 tonnes of potential CO2 per person for EU+Africa+ASIS, or 265 if the other Cartagena nations are included) and the six prominent blockers still come in well above average (568 tonnes per person), but China and India buck the trend at 212 and 131 tonnes respectively.

Nonetheless, I do think looking at the issue through the prism of reserves provides an interesting insight. And it fits neatly with an episode that took place at the end of the Durban talks. While most of Latin America appeared keen to see a deal progress, one nation – Venezuela – caused a stir in the heated final hours when the country’s negotiator stood on her chair, banged her nameplate and clashed with the UN chair over whether developing nations were being asked to “sell themselves down the river”. She may well have had a point, but it’s hard not to notice that Venezuela is sitting on the second biggest conventional oil reserves in the world plus a belt of unexploited tar sands potentially even bigger than Canada’s.

It could be a coincidence that the visible last-minute blocker in Durban happens to have probably the world’s largest carbon reserves. But I doubt it.

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