The Big Choice

– A $20 trillion “externality” appears to present civilization with its BIG CHOICE: economic destruction or ecological destruction, both with chilling global security implications.  Here’s why, along with a practical and more hopeful alternative to “Sophie’s Choice.”

Carbon Tracker has released an illuminating report

“Unburnable Carbon – Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?”[i]

The report nicely describes the potential “stranded asset risk” to resource company investors, and calls for a regulatory response on disclosure.  What the report does not make explicit is the BIG CHOICE:  Barring a miracle technology advance in the next decade (keep working brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs), if we want to avoid civilization-transforming and global  security threatening climate change, we must absorb a global security threatening $20 trillion write off (that’s 40 percent of global GDP) into our already stressed global economy.  Even if gradually spread over a decade or more, with partial offsetting value creation in sustainable energy industries, this is an unprecedented challenge.

First the essential facts as per the report:

  • The Potsdam Institute calculates that in order to reduce the risk of exceeding 2 degrees Celsius warming to a 20 percent chance (not all that comforting), the global carbon budget for 2000 – 2050 cannot exceed 886 GtC02.  Minus emissions in the first decade of the century, this leaves a budget of 565 GtC02 over the next 40 years.
  • Total “proved” fossil fuel reserves listed on public company balance sheets and State reported reserves is estimated at 2795 GtC02, nearly 5 times the remaining budget, implying 80 percent of these reserves should be left in the ground. 
  • Seventy four percent of these reserves are State owned (Russia, China, Saudi, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, etc.) or owned by private companies, 26 percent are owned by the 200 largest public energy companies.

According to James Leaton at Carbon Tracker, the market value of the top 100 public oil and gas companies and the top 100 public coal companies listed in the report exceeds $7 trillion, approximately 12% of the global public equity market.  Making a simple assumption[ii] that State-owned companies and reserves have an equivalent market value per unit of carbon would suggest the global market value of proved fossil fuel reserves equals $27 trillion.

A real cap on carbon emissions designed to limit warming to two degrees implies sovereign states and public corporations will need to strand 80 percent of their $27 trillion of proved reserves.  Rounding down, this implies a potential $20 trillion write off[iii].

The risk of systemic collapse of an already fragile, interconnected global economy is high if we incur a write off of this magnitude.  Fossil fuel intensive economies and investors would be severely damaged, no doubt triggering a deep and prolonged recession while the losses were absorbed.  Some, like Saudi Arabia where energy represents 75% of government revenues, and Venezuela (50% of government revenues) would face economic devastation leading to widespread social unrest.

Not surprisingly, the markets are ignoring this risk today as the Carbon Tracker report makes clear.  Why would they do otherwise when, as Bill McKibben pointed out, the US House of Representatives recently defeated a resolution stating simply that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare”?  Why listen to the broad scientific consensus when we can invent a more accommodating (and remarkably partisan) physics?  No surprise that this week, American Electric Power announced that it is shelving plans for its $668-million, full-scale carbon capture plant at Mountaineer in West Virginia, the nation’s most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from a coal-burning power plant in the United States, “until economic and policy conditions create a viable path forward.”

Rising fossil fuel stock prices coupled with no game-changing promise of carbon sequestration technologies (the present reality) implies the markets assume we blow past the 2 degree warming limit into catastrophic climate change.

Is there an alternative to the BIG CHOICE between ecological destruction and economic destruction?  I think the answer is “yes,” but not with the simple happy talk of “CSR” and “growing the green economy.”  A viable plan will entail real costs, unprecedented commitment, and shared sacrifice.

Costs:  The seminal “Stern Review”[iv] on the economics of climate change suggests that for a range of manageable costs centered around a 1% reduction of GDP growth, greenhouse gasses can be stabilized at 500 to 550 ppm by 2050.  While this modeling exercise is highly complex, it contains at least two fundamental flaws.  First, it presumes 500 ppm is consistent with the 2 degree goal, when the scientific consensus, propelled by increasingly disturbing new evidence of climate change, is calling for a limit of only 350 ppm, what Bill McKibben calls “the most important number in the world.”[v]  And second, it appears to ignore the $20 trillion stranded asset write down and associated economic spillovers by assuming carbon sequestration capabilities will allow us to continue burning fossil fuels largely unabated.

I can only speculate on what portion of the $20 trillion stranded cost potential will need to be incurred.  It will depend on the success of carbon sequestration technologies (unknowable), and their cost (also unknowable).  But it will not be cheap.  Prudence suggests we should plan to incur at least half of these costs, still a profound multi-decade economic challenge.  We must also determine what combination of caps, taxes, and regulation will best manage the difficult carbon-limiting prioritization decisions among coal, various qualities of oil, and gas, and among the resource bases of sovereign states (with armies) and multinational corporations that we decide to burn, all having profound financial, political, social, and security implications.

Unprecedented commitment:  At the core, our challenge and our greatest chance to mitigate the most horrendous consequences of the BIG CHOICE boils down to a capital allocation decision.  We must of course invest aggressively in the “green economy” of clean technologies including carbon sequestration, energy efficiency, and alternative energy.  Indeed this process has begun as documented by Ethical Market’s Green Transition Scoreboard[vi], which now documents over $2 trillion of private sector investments in, and commitments to, the “Green Transition.”  We must accelerate low technology paths such as avoided deforestation and grassland restoration[vii] to sequester carbon.  But we must also remove subsidies and divest from the destructive fossil-fuel- based energy, transportation, and industrial agriculture systems, and from the destabilizing and counterproductive speculation of the Wall Street financial system.   Only if we marshal unprecedented private and public resources to the great energy system transition can we hope to manage the BIG CHOICE.

Shared sacrifice:  It’s time for true leadership around shared sacrifice.  This must start with the richest half billion people, less than 10% of the human race, whose consumption and investment decisions will determine the fate of civilization.  It’s time we awaken to the burden we bear.  Seeking justice, our children will ask — What did you do, once you knew?


[ii] This assumption is somewhat flawed because the market capitalization of a resource company should and usually does exceed the present value of its “proved reserves” because as a going concern, it is expected to create incremental value beyond its current reserves.  However, my assumption remains conservative because it also ignores all “unproved” reserves whose values are only partially reflected in company valuations, and ignores reserves held by all private companies and public companies not in the top 100 lists.  World recoverable reserves certainly exceed by a wide margin, some argue by multiples, the current quantity of “proved reserves” on the books, meaning the total potential for stranded reserves is far greater than indicated here.

[iii] Yes this analysis ignores the potential of carbon sequestration technologies, but they are probably at least a decade away and uncertain.  It also probably overstates the sovereign value of reserves, given the widely held belief that some governments overstate their reserves for political reasons.  But it also ignores the value of many refining assets, power plants, shipping, rail, and pipeline infrastructure that will be devalued if we decide to leave fossil fuels in the ground in order to limit carbon pollution.  It ignores the value of all private and smaller energy companies.  It ignores the value to dependent governments of all associated production and consumption tax receipts associated with fossil fuels which have tremendous economic value.  And, it only achieves an 80 percent confidence that we don’t exceed the 2 degrees warming target. Overall, we believe the $20 trillion estimate of aggregate economic exposure is reasonable.