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You Can’t Have Your Carbon and Consume It Too

Fossil Fuels and the Impending Market Crisis


Pension funds need to be asked to stop investing in oil, coal and gas–conventional and unconventional forms alike.

While visions of billions dance in CEOs’ heads, the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and permafrost threatens to unlock methane emissions that will incur costs in the tens of trillions, much of it associated with floods, droughts and storms in vulnerable regions.  So why are financially affluent nations still spending hundreds of billions subsiding fossil fuels? The U.S. government facilitates carbon-related investments in other ways too; consider the special rules enabling oil companies to avoid sanctions if they happen to kill a polar bear in the Chukchi Sea when prospecting.

The economic comeuppance might not be instant, but it’s on the way.  The 2°C global carbon budget—a key climate-change goal agreed at UN-led talks in Copenhagen in 2009—has a ceiling of 545 gigatons in carbon dioxide emissions to 2050; today’s national and private reserves amount to three times that level. Past 2°C, there is a risk of nonlinear tipping elements. Even a less ambitious, riskier target of 3°C would restrict known fossil fuel reserves significantly.

Having developed a Carbon Tracker concept to “improve the transparency of the carbon embedded in equity markets,” Investor Watch  asserts that we must leave 60-80% of listed corporations’known fossil fuel reserves untouched between now and 2050 if we are to have an 80% chance of keeping our atmosphere within of an average 2°C over pre-industrial levels.

The International Energy Agency accepts that zero energy-related emissions by 2075 is needed. Investments in clean energy have to double by 2020, the IEA claims (with the spending offset by fossil fuel purchases spared). But at the same time, the IEA says: “Fossil fuels remain dominant and demand continues to grow, locking in high-carbon infrastructure.”

Investor Watch challenges this, asserting that the presumed assets lack the market value claimed on the balance sheets, and may wind up stranded rather than locked in. For example, coal plants may be left inoperative when emissions regulations and alternative fuels render them worthless.

Many investment advisers have no idea about their clients’ exposure to carbon assets. Call one and find out. A more formal example of helpful pressure would be a shareholder confronting a financial-services company with information about stranded assets, and asking for a response.

As the clock ticks up to the 2015 UN climate negotiations, the obvious will be stated: fossil-fuel reserves being sought by Big Oil would increase greenhouse gases disastrously. We need to support a low-carbon economy if worldwide climate-sustaining negotiations would succeed—as they must. It’s high time for bold measures to prevent further ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and loss of glaciers and ice sheets—sources of water and life.

That means we must stop the coal, oil and gas prospecting now, not tomorrow. And the sooner investments in fossil fuels stop, the less harm the “carbon bubble” will do.

Lee Hall is a candidate for Vermont Law School’s LL.M. in environmental law (2014). Previously, Lee taught animal law and immigration law, and worked for more than a decade in environmental and animal advocacy. Follow Lee on Twitter:  @Animal_Law