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Concept: Fossil fuel


We assess climate impacts of global warming using ongoing observations and paleoclimate data. We use Earth’s measured energy imbalance, paleoclimate data, and simple representations of the global carbon cycle and temperature to define emission reductions needed to stabilize climate and avoid potentially disastrous impacts on today’s young people, future generations, and nature. A cumulative industrial-era limit of ∼500 GtC fossil fuel emissions and 100 GtC storage in the biosphere and soil would keep climate close to the Holocene range to which humanity and other species are adapted. Cumulative emissions of ∼1000 GtC, sometimes associated with 2°C global warming, would spur “slow” feedbacks and eventual warming of 3-4°C with disastrous consequences. Rapid emissions reduction is required to restore Earth’s energy balance and avoid ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects. Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice. Responsible policymaking requires a rising price on carbon emissions that would preclude emissions from most remaining coal and unconventional fossil fuels and phase down emissions from conventional fossil fuels.

Concepts: Greenhouse gas, Methane, Climate change, Carbon, Fossil fuel, Coal, Carbon dioxide, Global warming


Policy makers have generally agreed that the average global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gas emissions should not exceed 2 °C above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times. 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). However, the greenhouse gas emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this, and so the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2 °C. Here we use a single integrated assessment model that contains estimates of the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources, and which is shown to be consistent with a wide variety of modelling approaches with different assumptions, to explore the implications of this emissions limit for fossil fuel production in different regions. Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2 °C. We show that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C. Our results show that policy makers' instincts to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels are, in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments to this temperature limit. Implementation of this policy commitment would also render unnecessary continued substantial expenditure on fossil fuel exploration, because any new discoveries could not lead to increased aggregate production.

Concepts: Natural gas, Petroleum, Methane, Coal, Greenhouse gas, Global warming, Carbon dioxide, Fossil fuel


Radiocarbon analyses are commonly used in a broad range of fields, including earth science, archaeology, forgery detection, isotope forensics, and physiology. Many applications are sensitive to the radiocarbon ((14)C) content of atmospheric CO2, which has varied since 1890 as a result of nuclear weapons testing, fossil fuel emissions, and CO2 cycling between atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial carbon reservoirs. Over this century, the ratio (14)C/C in atmospheric CO2 (Δ(14)CO2) will be determined by the amount of fossil fuel combustion, which decreases Δ(14)CO2 because fossil fuels have lost all (14)C from radioactive decay. Simulations of Δ(14)CO2 using the emission scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, the Representative Concentration Pathways, indicate that ambitious emission reductions could sustain Δ(14)CO2 near the preindustrial level of 0‰ through 2100, whereas “business-as-usual” emissions will reduce Δ(14)CO2 to -250‰, equivalent to the depletion expected from over 2,000 y of radioactive decay. Given current emissions trends, fossil fuel emission-driven artificial “aging” of the atmosphere is likely to occur much faster and with a larger magnitude than previously expected. This finding has strong and as yet unrecognized implications for many applications of radiocarbon in various fields, and it implies that radiocarbon dating may no longer provide definitive ages for samples up to 2,000 y old.

Concepts: Methane, Atmosphere, Combustion, Greenhouse gas, Global warming, Carbon dioxide, Fossil fuel, Carbon


Methane (CH4) impacts climate as the second strongest anthropogenic greenhouse gas and air quality by influencing tropospheric ozone levels. Space-based observations have identified the Four Corners region in the Southwest United States as an area of large CH4 enhancements. We conducted an airborne campaign in Four Corners during April 2015 with the next-generation Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (near-infrared) and Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (thermal infrared) imaging spectrometers to better understand the source of methane by measuring methane plumes at 1- to 3-m spatial resolution. Our analysis detected more than 250 individual methane plumes from fossil fuel harvesting, processing, and distributing infrastructures, spanning an emission range from the detection limit [Formula: see text] 2 kg/h to 5 kg/h through [Formula: see text] 5,000 kg/h. Observed sources include gas processing facilities, storage tanks, pipeline leaks, and well pads, as well as a coal mine venting shaft. Overall, plume enhancements and inferred fluxes follow a lognormal distribution, with the top 10% emitters contributing 49 to 66% to the inferred total point source flux of 0.23 Tg/y to 0.39 Tg/y. With the observed confirmation of a lognormal emission distribution, this airborne observing strategy and its ability to locate previously unknown point sources in real time provides an efficient and effective method to identify and mitigate major emissions contributors over a wide geographic area. With improved instrumentation, this capability scales to spaceborne applications [Thompson DR, et al. (2016) Geophys Res Lett 43(12):6571-6578]. Further illustration of this potential is demonstrated with two detected, confirmed, and repaired pipeline leaks during the campaign.

Concepts: Fossil fuel, Four Corners, Methane, Global warming, Carbon dioxide, Coal, Natural gas, Greenhouse gas


Coal is a principal fossil fuel driving economic and social development, and increases in global coal shipments have paralleled expansion of the industry. To identify the potential harm associated with chronic marine coal contamination, three taxa abundant in tropical marine ecosystems (the coral Acropora tenuis, the reef fish Acanthochromis polyacanthus and the seagrass Halodule uninervis) were exposed to five concentrations (0-275 mg coal l(-1)) of suspended coal dust (<63 μm) over 28 d. Results demonstrate that chronic coal exposure can cause considerable lethal effects on corals, and reductions in seagrass and fish growth rates. Coral survivorship and seagrass growth rates were inversely related to increasing coal concentrations (≥38 mg coal l(-1)) and effects increased between 14 and 28 d, whereas fish growth rates were similarly depressed at all coal concentrations tested. This investigation provides novel insights into direct coal impacts on key tropical taxa for application in the assessment of risks posed by increasing coal shipments in globally threatened marine ecosystems.

Concepts: Fisheries, Acropora, Scleractinia, Marine biology, Fossil fuel, Coral, Coal, Coral reef


This study quantitatively estimates the spatial distribution of anthropogenic methane sources in the United States by combining comprehensive atmospheric methane observations, extensive spatial datasets, and a high-resolution atmospheric transport model. Results show that current inventories from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research underestimate methane emissions nationally by a factor of ∼1.5 and ∼1.7, respectively. Our study indicates that emissions due to ruminants and manure are up to twice the magnitude of existing inventories. In addition, the discrepancy in methane source estimates is particularly pronounced in the south-central United States, where we find total emissions are ∼2.7 times greater than in most inventories and account for 24 ± 3% of national emissions. The spatial patterns of our emission fluxes and observed methane-propane correlations indicate that fossil fuel extraction and refining are major contributors (45 ± 13%) in the south-central United States. This result suggests that regional methane emissions due to fossil fuel extraction and processing could be 4.9 ± 2.6 times larger than in EDGAR, the most comprehensive global methane inventory. These results cast doubt on the US EPA’s recent decision to downscale its estimate of national natural gas emissions by 25-30%. Overall, we conclude that methane emissions associated with both the animal husbandry and fossil fuel industries have larger greenhouse gas impacts than indicated by existing inventories.

Concepts: Petroleum, Coal, Carbon dioxide, Fossil fuel, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Natural gas, Greenhouse gas, Methane


The United Nations Conference on Climate Change (Paris 2015) reached an international agreement to keep the rise in global average temperature ‘well below 2°C’ and to ‘aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C’. These reductions will have to be made in the face of rising global energy demand. Here a thoroughly validated dynamic econometric model (Eq 1) is used to forecast global energy demand growth (International Energy Agency and BP), which is driven by an increase of the global population (UN), energy use per person and real GDP (World Bank and Maddison). Even relatively conservative assumptions put a severe upward pressure on forecast global energy demand and highlight three areas of concern. First, is the potential for an exponential increase of fossil fuel consumption, if renewable energy systems are not rapidly scaled up. Second, implementation of internationally mandated CO2 emission controls are forecast to place serious constraints on fossil fuel use from ~2030 onward, raising energy security implications. Third is the challenge of maintaining the international ‘pro-growth’ strategy being used to meet poverty alleviation targets, while reducing CO2 emissions. Our findings place global economists and environmentalists on the same side as they indicate that the scale up of CO2 neutral renewable energy systems is not only important to protect against climate change, but to enhance global energy security by reducing our dependence of fossil fuels and to provide a sustainable basis for economic development and poverty alleviation. Very hard choices will have to be made to achieve ‘sustainable development’ goals.

Concepts: Sustainability, Energy development, Peak oil, Energy economics, Carbon dioxide, Greenhouse gas, Fossil fuel, Renewable energy


In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, on balance it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. Based on global projection data that take into account the effects of Fukushima, we find that by mid-century, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million deaths and 80 to 240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.

Concepts: Methane, Global warming, Carbon dioxide, Energy development, Fossil fuel, Natural gas, Coal, Greenhouse gas


Methane has the second-largest global radiative forcing impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gases after carbon dioxide, but our understanding of the global atmospheric methane budget is incomplete. The global fossil fuel industry (production and usage of natural gas, oil and coal) is thought to contribute 15 to 22 per cent of methane emissions to the total atmospheric methane budget. However, questions remain regarding methane emission trends as a result of fossil fuel industrial activity and the contribution to total methane emissions of sources from the fossil fuel industry and from natural geological seepage, which are often co-located. Here we re-evaluate the global methane budget and the contribution of the fossil fuel industry to methane emissions based on long-term global methane and methane carbon isotope records. We compile the largest isotopic methane source signature database so far, including fossil fuel, microbial and biomass-burning methane emission sources. We find that total fossil fuel methane emissions (fossil fuel industry plus natural geological seepage) are not increasing over time, but are 60 to 110 per cent greater than current estimates owing to large revisions in isotope source signatures. We show that this is consistent with the observed global latitudinal methane gradient. After accounting for natural geological methane seepage, we find that methane emissions from natural gas, oil and coal production and their usage are 20 to 60 per cent greater than inventories. Our findings imply a greater potential for the fossil fuel industry to mitigate anthropogenic climate forcing, but we also find that methane emissions from natural gas as a fraction of production have declined from approximately 8 per cent to approximately 2 per cent over the past three decades.

Concepts: Petroleum, Carbon, Coal, Natural gas, Fossil fuel, Carbon dioxide, Greenhouse gas, Methane


Tropical peatlands contain one of the largest pools of terrestrial organic carbon, amounting to about 89,000 teragrams (1 Tg is a billion kilograms). Approximately 65 per cent of this carbon store is in Indonesia, where extensive anthropogenic degradation in the form of deforestation, drainage and fire are converting it into a globally significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Here we quantify the annual export of fluvial organic carbon from both intact peat swamp forest and peat swamp forest subject to past anthropogenic disturbance. We find that the total fluvial organic carbon flux from disturbed peat swamp forest is about 50 per cent larger than that from intact peat swamp forest. By carbon-14 dating of dissolved organic carbon (which makes up over 91 per cent of total organic carbon), we find that leaching of dissolved organic carbon from intact peat swamp forest is derived mainly from recent primary production (plant growth). In contrast, dissolved organic carbon from disturbed peat swamp forest consists mostly of much older (centuries to millennia) carbon from deep within the peat column. When we include the fluvial carbon loss term, which is often ignored, in the peatland carbon budget, we find that it increases the estimate of total carbon lost from the disturbed peatlands in our study by 22 per cent. We further estimate that since 1990 peatland disturbance has resulted in a 32 per cent increase in fluvial organic carbon flux from southeast Asia–an increase that is more than half of the entire annual fluvial organic carbon flux from all European peatlands. Our findings emphasize the need to quantify fluvial carbon losses in order to improve estimates of the impact of deforestation and drainage on tropical peatland carbon balances.

Concepts: Carbon, Coal, Peat swamp forest, Fossil fuel, Carbon dioxide, Soil, Tropical peat, Peat