The Supply-Side of Climate Mitigation is Toothless

To eliminate global greenhouse gas emissions requires a two-pronged policy approach. Much is made of reducing demand for greenhouse gases through the switch to renewables, regulations and carbon taxes. But, with respect to fossil fuels, the supply needs to be reduced and eventually ceased. Climate activists like valve-turner Micheal Foster recognize that to achieve the climate mitigation targets much of the potential supply of fossil fuels must be left in the ground. With respect to the valve-turners actions of October 16th 2016, whilst it is possible to look at the minuscule impact that on global oil supply and proven reserves of oil, it is more difficult to estimate the marginal impact on the overall greenhouse gas emissions of their broader objective of permanently shutting down Canadian oil production. That requires estimates of CO2 emissions per unit of oil, coal and gas. In searching for figures to make my own estimates I came across a letter to Nature. McGlade and Ekins 2015 (The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C) estimate that the proven global reserves of oil, gas and coal would produce about 2900 GtCO2e. They further estimate that the “non-reserve resources” of fossil fuels represent a further 8000 GtCO2e of emissions.

There is no breakdown by country, so I input their values of CO2 per unit into the BP’s estimates of global reserves of oil, gas and coal, coming up with a similar 2800 GtCO2e. These represent roughly 50 years of oil and gas supply and 120 years of coal supply at current usage rates. This should be put into the context of the policy objectives. From the abstract.

It has been estimated that to have at least a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2 °C throughout the twenty-first century, the cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050 need to be limited to around 1,100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2).

This is similar to the IPCC’s central estimate of 1000 Gt CO2e from 2012 onwards. With just over 50 GtCO2e of GHG emissions per annum, from the beginning of 2018, the figure is around 700-800 GtCO2e. Taking into account other GHG emissions, to achieve the emissions target around 75% of proven reserves and 100% of any non-reserve sources or future discoveries must be left in the ground. I have produced a chart of the countries where these proven reserves lie, measured in terms of CO2 produced from burning.

These are very rough estimates, based upon the assuming that the emissions per unit of each fossil fuel are the same as the McGlade and Ekins averages. This is clearly not the case. A better estimate for oil, for instance, would likely have higher potential emissions from Venezuela and Canada, and lower potential emissions from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. However, it is clear that if global emissions constraints are to be achieved, the UN must get binding agreements from USA, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Qatar – plus many other countries – to abandon these vital resources within a few years. This would need to be done fairly and equitably in the eyes of all parties. But in such matters, there are widely different perspectives on what is fair, with a lack of ability by the UN to impose a settlement. There are also considerable economic costs to those nations whose economies rely on the producing fossil fuels, with the compensation the that they might demand unimaginably high. Further, like any cartel, there are considerable economic advantages in reneging on such deals, whilst ensuring that rival countries are held to their part of the agreement.

The problem is even greater. McGlade and Ekins 2015 is likely to have underestimated the unproven reserves of fossil fuels, even though the 8000 GtCO2e is truly staggering. The short 2013 GWPF paper THE ABUNDANCE OF FOSSIL FUELS by Phillip Mueller estimates that unproven, but potential recoverable reserves of tar sands in Canada and Green River Basin Wyoming, heavy oil in Venezuela and shale oil in Saudi Arabia could each be similar to or exceed, the global proven reserves of oil. Combined these could produce the around the same CO2 emissions of all the proven reserves of oil, gas and coal combined.

Then there are methane hydrates, which could contain 500 to 5000+ GtCO2e of emissions if burnt. The very nature of the hydrates could mean that large amounts of methane being released directly into the atmosphere.  This US Geological survey graphic (from a 2014 BBC article) shows the very wide distribution of the hydrates, meaning many countries could have large deposits within their territorial waters. This is especially significant for African nations, most of whom have very low, or nil, proven fossil fuel resources.

Mueller does not explore the potential reserves of coal. Under the North Sea alone there are estimates of 3 to 23 trillion tonnes of the stuff. (Searches reveal a number of other sources.) This compares to the BP estimate of 800 million tonnes of global proven reserves. 3 to 23 trillion tonnes of hard coal if burnt would represent 7000 to 55000 GtCO2e of emissions, compared to less than 1000 GtCO2e the IPCC claims sufficient to reach the 2C warming limit.

How many other vast fossil fuel reserves are out there? It may be just economic factors that stop fossil fuels reserves being proven and then exploited. What is clear is that whilst activists might be able to curtail or stop production of fossil fuels in Western countries, they are powerless to stop vast reserves being exploited in much of the rest of the World. The only significant consequence is to harm the economic futures of any country in which they gain successes and inadvertently work to benefit some pretty intolerant and oppressive regimes.

However, this does not leave climate activists impotent. They can work on better identifying when and where the catastrophic impacts of climate change will occur. But that would mean recognizing that previous prophesies of impending doom have been either totally false or massively exaggerated.

Kevin Marshall

Valve Turner Micheal Foster’s Climate Necessity Defense

The Climate Necessity Defence for criminal acts to impede the lawful business of the fossil fuel industry cannot be justified. The acts will never of themselves have a significant impact in constraining global greenhouse emissions. In any event, there will always be more than sufficient proven fossil fuel reserves in countries out of the reach of any activist action, or even Government-backed action, to constrain aggregate cumulative fossil fuel emissions to anywhere near the levels commensurate with constraining temperature to 2°C of warming. What it does do is impose immediate harms on the actual victims of the crimes, and harms on the countries in which the crimes are committed. Some of the harms are from benefitting non-policy countries who produce fossil fuels. The conviction last week of climate activist Michael Foster is a clear case study.


The New York Times reports (hattip GWPF) on the conviction by the North Dakota Supreme Court of Seattle resident Michael Foster.

Foster took part in effort on Oct. 11, 2016, to draw attention to climate change by turning off valves on five pipelines that bring Canadian oil south. Foster targeted the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. Other activists targeted pipelines in Minnesota, Montana and Washington state.

A jury in North Dakota’s Pembina County on Friday convicted Foster after a weeklong trial of criminal mischief, criminal trespass and conspiracy. He faces up to 21 years in prison when he’s sentenced Jan. 18. The man who filmed his protest action, Samuel Jessup of Winooski, Vermont, was convicted of conspiracy and faces up to 11 years.

What I found interesting was the next sentence.

Foster had hoped to use a legal tactic known as the climate necessity defense — justifying a crime by arguing that it prevented a greater harm from happening.

The Climate Disobedience Center in its article for activists on the climate necessity defense says

The basic idea behind the defense — also known as a “choice of evils,” “competing harms,” or “justification” defense — is that the impacts of climate change are so serious that breaking the law is necessary to avert them.

Foster had his action filmed, shown from 2.07 here.

Keystone Pipeline. North Dakota. I’m Michael Foster. In order to preserve life as we know it and civilization, give us a fair chance and our kids a fair chance, I’m taking this action as a citizen. I am duty bound.

This was a significant action. The video quotes Reuters news agency.

Was this action “preserving life as we know it“? In shutting down the pipeline, (along with four pipelines others in the coordinated action) 590,000 barrels of oil failed to be transported from Canada to the USA that morning. It was merely delayed. If the pipelines are working at full capacity it would maybe have been transported by rail instead. Or more produced in the USA. Or more imported from the Middle East. But suppose that those 590,000 barrels (83000 tonnes) had been left in the ground, never to be extracted, rather than delaying production. What is the marginal difference that it would make climate change?

From the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016 (full report), I find that global oil production in 2015 was around 92 million barrels per day, or 4362 million tonnes in the full year. Global production would have been 0.6% lower on Oct. 11, 2016 or 0.002% lower in the full year. Yet there is plenty of the stuff in the ground. Proven global reserves are around 50.7 years of global production. Leaving 590,000 barrels in the ground will reduce proven reserves by around 0.000038%. That is less than one part in a million of proven oil reserves. Yet in the last few years, proven reserves have been increasing, as extraction techniques keep improving. This despite production climbing as well. 2015 production was 21% higher than in 2000 and 56% higher than in 1985. Proven reserves in 2015 were 30% higher than in 2000 and 112% higher than in 1985.

I have divided up those 50.7 years of reserves by major areas.

The effect of turning off the oil pipeline is posturing unless it shuts down oil production in Canada and the USA. But that would still leave over 40 years of proven reserves elsewhere. Are Russia and Middle Eastern countries going to shut down their production because of the criminal acts of a few climate activists in the USA?

But oil is not the only major fossil fuel. Production of coal in 2015 was 3830 Million tonnes of oil equivalent, 88% of oil production. Proven coal reserves are 123 years of current production. Further, if oil prices rise to the levels seen over the last few years, it will become economic to convert more coal to liquids, a process which consumes four to five times the CO2 of burning oil.

Are China, Russia, India, Australia, Ukraine, Indonesia, South Africa and many other countries going to shut down their production because of the criminal acts of a few climate activists in the USA?

The third major fossil fuel is gas. Production in 2015 was 3200 million tonnes of oil equivalent, 73% of oil production. Proven reserves are equivalent to 52.8 years of current production levels.

The reserves are slightly more centralized than for oil or coal. Like with oil, a large part of available reserves are concentrated in Russia and the Middle East.

Leaving 590,000 barrels in the ground would reduce proven reserves of fossil fuels by around one part in ten million.

The 50+ years of proven reserves of oil and gas, and 120+ years of proven reserves of coal needs to be put into a policy context. The IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report gave a very rough guide to how much CO2 (or equivalent greenhouse gases) could be emitted to limit warming to less than 2°C. From 2012 it was 1000 GtCO2e.

With emissions in 2011 at around 50 GtCO2e, that gave 20 years. From next year that will be less than 15 years. The recent paper “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C” (hereafter Millar et. al 2017) reevaluated the figures, with the 1.5°C not being breached for a further 20 years. Whatever way you look at the figures, most of the proven fossil fuels in the world will have to be left in the ground. That requires the agreement of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkmenistan, China, India, Venezuela, alongside USA, Canada, Australia and a large number of other countries.

Further, there can be no more extractions of fossil fuels from unproven reserves, which will likely exceed the proven reserves.

The efforts of Micheal Foster and his mates could incite further criminal acts. But massive lawbreaking throughout the United States, it would still be insufficient in the USA to significantly dent the production and distribution of fossil fuels in the USA. Even if that happened, there are plenty of other countries who would willingly meet the existing demand. All that the action is likely to do is push up the costs of production and distribution in the USA, harming the US economy and the futures of people involved in the fossil fuel industries and energy-intensive industries.

It is the aspect of failing to make a significant marginal difference through the action – that is reducing global greenhouse gas emissions – than renders the climate necessity defense void. Even if large numbers of other actions are inspired by Foster and others, it would still be insufficient to get anywhere close to the constraint in emissions to constrain warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. On a larger scale, even if all major Western economies shut down all fossil fuel production and consumption immediately, it would merely delay by a few years the cumulative aggregate emissions from 2012 onwards exceeding 1000 GtCO2e.

It gets worse. A particular case must be decided on the damage caused to the victims of the crime. In this case the owners of the pipeline, the employees of the business, the customers who do not get their oil, etc. If there are beneficiaries, it is the billions of people in generations to come. The marginal difference to the victims of the action is tangible and has happened. The marginal difference to the beneficiaries is imperceptible and even then based on belief in what amount to nothing more than pseudo-scientific prophecies. But given that a shut-down of production in the USA is likely to be met by increased production elsewhere even these future dispersed and speculated benefits are unlikely to accrue.

More broadly, if specific people need to have their immediate interests sacrificed for the greater good, surely that is the function of Government, not some wayward activists? In that way the harms could be more equitably distributed. With random acts of criminality, the harms are more likely to be based on the prejudices on the activists.


The Climate Necessity Defence is an invalid justification for the criminal actions of Michael Foster and others in shutting down the oil pipelines from Canada into the USA. The marginal impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the action, if they were not made up by increased production elsewhere, is about one part in ten million. But given that most of the global proven fossil fuel reserves are concentrated in a small number of countries – many of whom have no commitment to reduce emissions, let alone leave the source of major revenues in the ground – the opportunity of producing more is likely to be taken up. Further, the harms the activist’s action is immediate, very definite and concentrated, whilst the benefits of reduced climate change impacts from reduced emissions are speculative and dispersed over tens of billions of people. 

Kevin Marshall