On the proposal to “Freeze fossil fuel extraction to stop climate crimes”

Frederico Carvalho

Will the conclusions of the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change, COP 21, shortly to meet in Paris [1]   , be able to significantly respond to and alleviate the pressing legitimate concerns of a large number of our fellow citizens preoccupied with the sustainability of life in our common home ― a planet facing the growing threats posed by an accelerated depletion of natural resources?

Climate change and global warming lay on the forefront of such concerns. It is currently accepted that the emission of the so-called greenhouse gases of anthropogenic origin is a determinant factor in the changes in the statistical properties of the Earth’s climate system that have been experienced in the relatively short period of time of one and a half centuries.


The emission of large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is an inevitable result of the burning of fossil fuels, be it carbon, oil or gas. The magnitude of that emission in the present is such that gives a ground for saying that CO2 is the main cause of the observed greenhouse effect.

We have built a society organized so that it cannot dispense the consumption of huge amounts of fossil fuels as energy source but also as raw materials required by the chemical industry and in metallurgy. The latter non-combustion uses are additional sources of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere although much less important than those associated with the burning of fossil fuels. However in today’s world they are of paramount importance in such fields as the production of synthetic materials, medicaments and fertilizers, and thus indirectly in agriculture and food production.

Reducing CO2 emissions to the atmosphere appears as a major necessity to everyone that has at heart the preservation of the quality of life, not to say, the survival of future generations.

Quite recently a number of concerned citizens that include renowned intellectuals with different cultural backgrounds have made public a Call entitled “Freeze fossil fuel extraction to stop climate crimes”[2]  .

As it is generally known fossil fuels are a non-renewable natural resource bound to become exhausted in a time that depends on the rate of extraction that is pursued. At the present rate a plausible estimate is that the available resources will be consumed in about half a century that is around 2070. It will be unwise if not even disastrous to keep the present rate of extraction and consumption of fossil fuels for at least two good reasons: the necessity to counteract the climate change and global warming associated with that consumption, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the importance of keeping a resource surplus for non-combustion uses during a period of time as long as possible.

The Authors of the above mentioned Call duly explain in a few paragraphs the reasons that justify their initiative, critically noting the fact that “for more than 20 years, governments have been meeting, yet greenhouse gas emissions have not decreased and the climate keeps changing.” They add: “The forces of inertia and obstruction prevail, even as scientific warnings become ever more dire.

They rightfully note based on the evidence of past experience that “global corporations and governments will not give up the profits they reap through the extraction of coal, gas and oil reserves; and through global fossil fuel based industrial agriculture.” These considerations are entirely pertinent as is the confidence shown in the capacity of humankind to “change everything” and “(…) open the way to a more livable future”.

In the final paragraphs of the Call there is the proposal to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” and “freeze fossil fuel extraction by leaving untouched 80% of all existing fossil fuel reserves”.

These are suggestive proposals that deserve a few considerations. In the first place there is the question of the definition of “reserves” and of their evaluation.

Resources are enormous although in very different qualities and in large but unknown quantities. The amounts of resources that are classified as reserves, when the resource meets the criteria to be classified as reserve, regarding technical accessibility and economic viability, are not exactly known and estimates have changed in time. Reserves either grow – given conditions of furthering exploration, technical innovation and social organization progress – or decrease – if such conditions are not satisfied or as consequence of gradual depletion of the planetary reservoir. Therefore a fixed number cannot be ascribed as the total amount (or, for that matter, as 80%) of the reserves of a particular resource.

Different qualified entities offer not exactly the same figures as reserve estimates for a particular resource, because they differ on data base, concept or methodology. Moreover, distinct figures are offered with different levels of probability. Finally such estimates of what is in the ground change as time passes by independently of the quantities extracted.

The proposal of freezing fossil fuel extraction “by leaving untouched 80% of all existing fossil fuel reserves” cannot in practice be made operational since it rests upon an undefined target as far as the total amount of what would be permitted to extract is undetermined.

The other aspect that remains unclarified is the admissible rate of extraction and its evolution in time. In other words: in how many years would the proposed 80% target be reached. We will in the following try to clarify ideas taking, for simplicity, only to the case of “oil”.

According to the most recent data available [3]  , the total estimated world oil reserves were in 2014 of 1666 billion barrels of oil (1,666 109 bbl). The production (that is nearly equal to the consumption) totaled 93.1 million barrels per day. The average value for the years 2010-14 was 90.2 million barrels per day. The numbers lead to a depletion rate of the oil reserves (defined as the rate of annual production as a percent of what is left in the ground) of 2% for 2014. If the total world annual production should remain essentially stable the 2014 estimated oil reserves would be exhausted in 50 years. Within 10 years the 80% target of untouched oil reserves in the ground would be reached[4]  . However, this forecast must be looked at carefully and critically: new reserves may yet be found and the reserve base accordingly updated; the extraction rate may change, so that depletion rate may vary or be adjusted with time. Notwithstanding such uncertainties one should keep in mind the generally assumed belief that the yet to find reserves will not substantially increase the present value of the estimated reserves, technically and economically accessible[5]  . To believe that halting the extraction of oil within 10 or even 20 years is a viable option is something that lies in the realm of the wildest phantasy. But if instead of keeping the present rate of production, the depletion rate would remain constant at 2%, the reserves in the ground would still be approximately 50% of the 2014 estimated reserves 35 years from now. This would be a much more palatable assumption than assuming the halting of the extraction within 10 years.

From the point of view of fossil fuel consumption to follow the path suggested by the supporters of the Call, would be the equivalent of a “crash landing”. To follow the path associated with keeping a constant depletion rate could be described as a “soft landing”.

However, at a constant depletion rate of 2% carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere would continue in the coming years, at a rate that may prove to be still incompatible with the objective of counteracting climate change.

If such is the case effective steps have to be taken in order to significantly reduce the rate of emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is not feasible to halt the extraction of fossil fuels for several decades to come, but it would be possible to progressively reduce the quantities extracted by significantly reducing the depletion rate of the reserves. To that end, it will be necessary to invest heavily in the development of non-carbonated energy sources (including nuclear energy, in the short and medium terms, as a transition path to renewables). At the same time, energy savings should be encouraged and promoted in all branches of the economy and social activity. In this respect, spatial planning, including land use, urban, regional, transport and environmental planning, are of paramount importance.


Credit: green-blog.org (http://www.green-blog.org/media/images/uploads/2012/11/hurricane-sandy-effect-630x420.jpg)

The Paris COP21 conference is a new opportunity for climate experts to assess the situation anew, enhance public awareness of the problems facing today’s societies and reach agreements that are accepted by all on the paths to be followed in order to solve those problems.

It is necessary to understand and keep in mind that this will not be an easy task. It will hardly be possible to succeed without social and political upheavals that will be met with much hostility from the side of big capital and multinational corporations as well as from the military-industrial complex, whose interests will be at stake. It will be necessary to create conditions for peace and security to prevail in the planet. Within international and supranational organizations it will be necessary to reach broad consensus on the need to implement adequately designed and scheduled programs of substitution of carbonated sources of energy while improving energy savings in all fields of social activity. It will probably be more challenging to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels for non-combustion uses. This is however a minor component of the total consumption.

Concrete projects must be launched that are economically and technically viable and are agreed upon with leading political circles in a package that includes the allocation of tasks to be carried out by institutions or groups of institutions at the national or international levels. This effort requires a substantial revamping of policies in the areas of science and technology, including the so-called “blue sky research”, with an increase of both human and financial resources allocated to R&D and innovation.

The author wishes to thank Prof. Rui Namorado Rosa for the illuminating discussions on the issue of mineral energy resources extraction and their eventual depletion rates in the future.

Prof. Rosa is a physicist, professor emeritus of the University of Évora, Portugal. He is a member of ASPO,the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

October 23d, 2015

Frederico Carvalho, is a physicist. He holds a doctor’s degree in Neutron Physics and Nuclear Technology, from Karlsruhe University, Germany. He is Vice-President of the Executive Council of the World Federation of Scientific Workers and Chair of the Board of Directors of OTC, the Portuguese Organisation of Scientific Workers

[4 Note that in the case the annual production remains stable the depletion rate will steadily increase.

[5 In this context one should not forget that the extraction of fossil fuels requires the expenditure of energy which has to be considered in establishing the net results of the process in terms of energy balance.

―see also “The Depletion Protocol”, in: “The Truth about Oil and the Looming Energy Crisis”, Colin Campbell (Eagle Print, Ireland, 2004)