The Truer Threat of a ‘Carbon Bubble’

carbon bubble pricked by needle

You aren’t an idiot, so you’ve long known many of the impacts of climate change are inevitable at this point. Some are already occurring. You get that. The trajectory is in place, and unless we change it sharply, we’re going to see worse and worse conditions.

But what if financial markets have embedded the trajectory to a great extent by all but guaranteeing dependence on fossil fuels? A new report (PDF) raising fear of a bubble in the fossil fuels market inadvertently suggests this trajectory is precisely what’s underway, although its authors don’t seem particularly concerned about the threat to our habitat. The deck has been stacked; there’s a carbon commitment in place, if you will.

I found the report through a blog entry by Lydia Prieg over at NEF. She summarizes some key points for those of us more interested in humanity and the planet than investors:

This research offered a fresh perspective on investment and tackling climate change, by noting that more fossil fuel reserves are currently listed on stock exchanges than can be burnt if we are to avoid breaching the 2 °C global temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels), beyond which it is believed that climate change will be irreversible. For example, the CTI notes that:

  • “global markets are currently treating as assets [carbon] reserves equivalent to nearly 5 times the carbon budget for the next 40 years.”
  • “the CO2 potential of the reserves listed in London alone account for 18.7% of the remaining global carbon budget.”
  • “If the 2 °C target is rigorously applied, then up to 80% of declared reserves owned by the world’s largest listed coal, oil and gas companies and their investors would be subject to impairment”

Note that the +2°C point is way too high. We want to aim for +1° beyond pre-industrial levels by Century’s end, fully conceding we’ll spend most of the next hundred years cooking well above +1°. (And the prospects for even +2° are more than a little grim.)

Like Prieg’s, my take on this is different from that of the report’s authors. They seem concerned for fossil fuel investors, which is probably their mission. But I’m more worried about the rest of us. If the world’s governments get serious about curbing carbon emissions, it’s unlikely they’ll leave speculators holding the bag. Whoever is holding a hot potato (oil field) if and when steep regulations kick in could get bailed out.

Even if the influence of those invested in dirty energy were to fail in some way, they’d almost certainly succeed in protecting their existing investments in the trade-off. Which in turn means burning that fuel or transferring the burden onto the consumer/citizen, who is of course relatively unprotected by government.

Anyway, as Prieg notes, the industry isn’t particularly worried about the prospect of harsh emissions limits being imposed on fossil fuel reserves already on the market, wagering either that curbs are not impending or that the price spike they’d cause would benefit contract holders.

But Prieg’s personal insights are most important:

Both these arguments, however, demonstrate the lack of interest investment managers have about the role that they themselves may be playing in bringing about irreversible climate change. Apparently, when one is focused on optimizing an investment portfolio’s performance, concerns regarding the state of the planet just don’t feature on the agenda.

Indeed.

Image credit: Carbon Tracker Initiative

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