How Much Warmer Would Earth Be If We Used Up All Our Fossil Fuels?

How Much Warmer Would Earth Be If We Used Up All Our Fossil Fuels?

By on Apr 15 2015

When the words "climate change" of "global warming" get brought up in the news or political debate, there is usually somebody speaking about how global temperatures are higher than they have ever been. This individual usually has something to say about CO2 levels or our dependence on fossil fuel consumption.

However, if global temperatures are higher than ever before, there must be a limit to how high they can go, right? What if there were no more fossil fuels left to raise CO2 levels and contribute to global warming? How much would the temperature on Earth increase if we used up all of our coal, oil, and natural gas reserves and resources?

According to University of Chicago professor of economics Michael Greenstone, former chief economist of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers from 2009-2010 and current director of U of C's Energy Policy Institute, the calculated number is a staggering 16.2 degrees.

According to an EcoWatch article, he added together the projected warming caused by the fossil fuels extracted so far and the fossil fuels that could be extracted with today's technology, both "reserves" those that are economical to extract and "resources" those that could become economical in the future. In addition, he calculated the CO2 in each source.

Since the industrial revolution, the planet has warmed 1.7 degrees, already causing rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts, and other extreme temperature occurrences.

Greenstone found that if we used all the coal, oil, and natural gas that is accessible and economical with today's technology and methods, we'd warm the Earth another 2.8 degrees on top of the 1.7 degrees we already made. He then added on the calculated impact of all fossil fuel resources that are recoverable but no economical another 3.1 degrees. Lastly, he added in coal, the dirtiest of our fossil fuels, and calculated that coal alone would contribute to another 8.6 degrees to the increase in temperature.

historical emissions chart
Calculating the Temperature Potential of Fossil Fuels by Michael Greenstone and Daniel Stuart. Image: EcoWatch

Scientists say that anything over a 3.6 degree increase in today's global temperature would be devastating to life as we know it. In order to stay below this figure, Greenstone said that Arctic oil and gas, most shale gas reserves, and Canadian tar sands would need to be stranded and coal producers would have to leave behind 90% of their reserves.

"If we use all of the fossil fuels in the ground, the planet will warm in a way that is difficult to imagine," Greenstone warned in the EcoWatch article. "Unless the economics of energy markets change, we are poised to use them.

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