At the climate conference (COP21) in December 2015, 195 countries, including Australia, adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement, agreeing to hold global warming well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to keep to warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels..
The amount of carbon that can be emitted to the atmosphere is very limited if these temperature limits are to be met. The most recent assessments indicate that from 2015 to 2100 only 470-1,020 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) of CO2 pollution can be emitted to the atmosphere globally, if we are to have a likely chance (greater than 66%) to stay under 2°C warming. Clearly this limit would need to be much lower to provide a reasonable chance to meet 1.5°C warming limits.
To achieve this, the science, as assessed for example in International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, tells us that globally greenhouse emissions need to be zero in the second half of the century. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion (coal, oil and gas) and cement need to be removed from the equation entirely much earlier, by around 2050 for a 1.5°C limit and perhaps a decade later for the 2°C limit.
Burning fossil fuels for our energy needs is the single most significant driver of global warming. Recent research conducted by University College London clearly demonstrates that, to prevent more than 2℃ global warming, we cannot extract and burn most of the world’s known fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) reserves.
That research identifies that, of (already) known reserves in the OECD Pacific Region – which includes Australia – 49% of existing oil reserves, 51% of existing gas reserves and 95% of existing coal reserves must not be extracted and burnt. These figures make it clear that, in order to act consistently with the current science, we are already at the stage where existing reserves cannot be burnt. Globally, there are already more known oil reserves than can be burnt without risking dangerous climate change impacts.
The significance of this finding cannot be overstated in terms of what this new climate reality means for new fossil fuel exploration activities. Namely, the world already has more known coal, oil and gas reserves than we can safely burn and any new reserves found and added to global reserves can only make the problem of stranded resource assets worse.
In light of these figures, new reserves cannot be exploited if we are to limit dangerous global warming to the internationally agreed maximum of 2℃. In this context, opening up the Bight as a new major oil basin cannot deliver net new global oil supply without posing a major new threat to the climate.
A recent report by Climate Analytics has considered current plans to pursue frontier oil exploration and production in the Bight in the context of these global climate policy realities. It finds that even assuming only partial resource volume estimates for Bight Petroleum’s EPPs (nine billion barrels of oil from two out of nine permit areas), if exploited and burnt these fossil fuels would amount to about three billion tonnes (gigatonnes) of CO2 pollution. It notes this is the equivalent of nearly eight times Australia’s 2013 annual greenhouse gas emissions and concludes that adding additional oil reserves to the world energy system, as proposed by BP and others in the Great Australian Bight, is inconsistent with the global temperature and emission limits from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.