Unburnable Carbon: Why we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground

This new report reveals that the pollution from Australia’s coal resources, particularly the enormous Galilee coal basin, could take us two-thirds of the way to a two degree rise in global temperature.



1. To tackle climate change, 195 countries around the world, including Australia, have agreed to keep global temperature rise to no more than 2°C.

  • Already at a global temperature rise of less than 1°C, climate change is making many extreme weather events in Australia significantly worse. For instance, hot days have doubled in the last 50 years, while heatwaves have become hotter, last longer and occur more often.
  • A 2°C rise in global temperature will have serious impacts on the lives and livelihoods of many people world-wide, and could trigger major changes in the Earth System. For instance, a 2°C rise could trigger the melting of the Greenland ice-sheet, which would eventually raise sea level by about 7 metres, inundating major cities world-wide.

2. Most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground, unburned, to keep global temperature rise to no more than 2°C.

  • The carbon budget is a scientifically based method to determine how much carbon humanity can “spend”. The higher the probability of limiting warming to no more than 2°C, the more stringent the budget.
  • To have a 50% chance of meeting the 2°C warming limit at least 62% of the world’s fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) reserves must be left in the ground, unburned. To have a 75% chance of meeting the 2°C warming limit, at least 77% of the world’s fossil fuels cannot be burned.
  • Coal is the fossil fuel with the greatest proportion that cannot be used; 88% of global reserves are unburnable.

3. Australia is potentially a huge contributor to global CO2 emissions through domestic use and exports. Use of our coal must be severely constrained to tackle climate change effectively.

  • If all of Australia’s coal resources were burned, it would consume two-thirds of the global carbon budget (based on a 75% chance to meet the 2°C warming limit).
  • It is likely that over 90% of Australian coal reserves are unburnable under even the most generous carbon budget.
  • Exploitation of Australia’s Galilee Basin coal deposits is incompatible with effective action on climate change.

4. The remaining carbon budget is decreasing rapidly. This is the critical decade to get emissions tracking downwards and to move investment away from fossil fuels.

  • Energy policies that support substantial fossil fuel use are inconsistent with tackling climate change. Huge new fossil fuel developments, like the Galilee Basin in Australia, the tar sands in Canada and new resources in the Arctic, cannot be developed.
  • To have any chance of meeting the 2°C policy target, new investment in fossil fuels, particularly in coal, needs to be reduced to zero as soon as possible.
  • To be consistent with the carbon budget approach, Australia needs to move to an emissions reduction target of 15% below 2000 levels by 2020, and to a 40-60% reduction below 2000 levels by 2030.
  • Meeting the carbon budget also presents opportunities for the Australian economy by replacing its ageing, inefficient fleet of power stations with modern, clean renewables and by shifting our export industries to low-carbon primary products and minerals.