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Fossil fuel reserves match UN climate negotiating positions

by Duncan Clark

Why do we ignore the correlation between national fossil fuel reserves and negotiating positions on climate change?

Coal trucks pass each other at BHP Billiton's Mt Arthur coal mine in Australia

Want to understand why we're not solving climate change? Then follow the money – which in this case means following the carbon. The data show a very striking – and oddly ‘overlooked’ – correlation between fossil fuel reserves and national negotiating position on climate change.

I have previously written about the emerging concept of a "carbon bubble" and the risks for investors of putting money into companies that hold fossil fuel reserves. After all, if the world is to meet its stated 2C target for limiting global warming, most of those fuels will need to be left in the ground.

More recently, I found myself wondering how all that "un-burnable" fuel was distributed globally – and how this might be affecting the negotiations. I was surprised that there didn't seem to be a good dataset of the potential emissions of each country's fossil fuel reserves—so I took the fossil fuel data from most recent BP Statistical Review of World Energy and converted oil, coal and gas reserves listed for each country into the approximate amount of CO2 that would be released if they were burned.

I annotated the data to highlight countries and regions that have featured prominently – positively or negatively – in the climate negotiations of the last couple of years. Countries don't have simple 'yes' and 'no' stances on whether we should sign a global deal, and all of them would describe their own position as ‘fair and constructive’. To make things more complex many nations are members of one or more negotiating blocs, each of which contains a range of perspectives.

Those complexities notwithstanding, we can paint a broad-brush picture. For example, it was widely reported during the Durban talks that the key push for an ambitious deal was coming from an informal alliance of the EU, Africa and ASIS (the Alliance of Small Island States). I found myself wondering what proportion of the world's 'carbon reserves' these nations hold. Answer: not much. The regions pushing hardest for a global deal are home to only a tenth of the potential CO2 locked up in the world's remaining fossil fuel reserves.

Of course, the true picture is more nuanced as various other nations have been credited with working proactively towards a global deal. The progressive nations joined together to form an informal alliance called the Cartagena Dialogue. There's no formal membership list, but in addition to the EU, some African states and ASIS, the Cartagena group has included a handful of nations each from Asia (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand), Latin America (Colombia, Peru, Mexico) and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand), plus a lone representative of the Middle East (UAE).

Not all these nations necessarily delivered on the ground. For example, Australia – despite having recently pushed through a carbon tax at home – didn't play a prominent role in Durban and appeared to be mainly concerned with helping the US. But let's be generous, ignore these caveats and add all of these Cartagena Dialogue nations to the 'yes' stack. Surprisingly, we still only get to 20% of global carbon reserves...and about 14% if we leave off Australia.

So what happens if we spin the picture around and look at the countries widely perceived to be actively unhelpful in the negotiations. A handful of prominent countries--the US, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Russia--contain almost 60% of the world's potential fossil-fuel CO2.

In a sense, none of this is surprising. We all know that Canada's anti-green agenda is related to its tar sands, and that Saudi Arabia's recalcitrance is related to its oil wells. Yet when we talk about the climate negotiations more broadly, we tend to forget fossil fuel reserves, and instead try to interpret everything through the lens of current and future emissions.

But reserves are crucial. 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 this trend at 212 and 131 tonnes respectively.

Nonetheless, I do think looking at the issue through the prism of reserves provides an interesting insight. It also fits neatly with an episode that took place at the end of the COP17 Durban talks at the end of 2011. 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.

Was it a coincidence that the visible last-minute blocker at COP17 happened to have probably the world's largest carbon reserves? You have to doubt it.

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