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Fossil resource and energy security dynamics in conventional and carbon-constrained worlds


Fossil resource endowments and the future development of fossil fuel prices are important factors that will critically influence the nature and direction of the global energy system. In this paper we analyze a multi-model ensemble of long-term energy and emissions scenarios that were developed within the framework of the EMF27 integrated assessment model inter-comparison exercise. The diverse nature of these models highlights large uncertainties in the likely development of fossil resource (coal, oil, and natural gas) consumption, trade, and prices over the course of the twenty-first century and under different climate policy frameworks. We explore and explain some of the differences across scenarios and models and compare the scenario results with fossil resource estimates from the literature. A robust finding across the suite of IAMs is that the cumulative fossil fuel consumption foreseen by the models is well within the bounds of estimated recoverable reserves and resources. Hence, fossil resource constraints are, in and of themselves, unlikely to limit future GHG emissions this century. Our analysis also shows that climate mitigation policies could lead to a major reallocation of financial flows between regions, in terms of expenditures on fossil fuels and carbon, and can help to alleviate near-term energy security concerns via the reductions in oil imports and increases in energy system diversity they will help to motivate. Aggressive efforts to promote energy efficiency are, on their own, not likely to lead to markedly greater energy independence, however, contrary to the stated objectives of certain industrialized countries.

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  1. This range includes additional occurrences of unconventional oil (see Rogner et al. (2012)).

  2. The extent of ultimately recoverable oil, gas, and coal is the subject of numerous reviews; yet, still the range of values in the literature is large (Table 1). Uncertainties stem from varying boundaries of what is included in the analysis of a finite stock of an exhaustible resource, e.g., conventional oil only or conventional oil plus unconventional occurrences, such as oil shale, oil sands, and extra-heavy oils (Rogner et al. 2012). Past studies that have indicated stricter resource limitations (e.g., Rutledge (2011) for coal) generally assume narrower boundary conditions, excluding some portion of reserves and/or resources. Such a perspective is useful to explain short-term trends of proven reserves but is less applicable for long-term analysis of full-century scenarios, which must consider future technological improvements and other factors that have historically contributed to increases in fossil reserves extractable at market conditions.

  3. The RCP scenarios were developed by four different IAMs and were meant to serve as inputs for climate and atmospheric chemistry modeling as part of the preparatory phase for the development of new scenarios for the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report and beyond. Each RCP is named according to the radiative forcing level (W/m2) attained in 2100.

  4. Energy efficiency and conservation, as discussed here, refers to the combined, additional set of technological and structural changes that take place throughout the economy leading to marked increases in the autonomous rates of energy efficiency improvement (AEEI) for individual regions and sectors. Such developments represent an alternative scenario worldview and are not envisioned to be motivated by climate-related concerns.

  5. The GRAPE model is unique among the models in that it sees more rapid uptake, as well as much greater cumulative deployment throughout the century, of fossil technologies with CCS. Bioenergy with CCS also penetrates the market more quickly. Hence, GRAPE’s cumulative fossil resource use in the 550 FullTech scenario is only slightly less than in the Base FullTech.

  6. We assume here that the price put on CO2 emissions is implemented as a tax. Hence, the expenditures deriving from the carbon tax represent fiscal revenues accruing to the region where the emissions are generated. These revenues could then be redistributed throughout the rest of the economy.

  7. A full listing of countries by RCP region can also be found at the following URL:

  8. RCP aggregation; see previous footnote.

  9. The extent to which the global oil market is competitive is outside the scope of this paper. IAMs tend to represent this market in an admittedly abstract way, accounting very simply for the myriad intricacies therein (e.g., cartel behavior, long-term bilateral contracts, etc.); hence, certain market dynamics are not captured. Nevertheless, global markets will likely continue to favor lower-cost oil supplies, notwithstanding geopolitical impediments, and these supplies are generally found outside of the OECD90 and ASIA.

  10. Note that the EMF27 scenarios assume that climate and/or efficiency policies are pursued in all regions simultaneously, not just in the countries of the OECD90 and ASIA.

  11. While this discussion focuses on the diversity of global oil and gas markets, the trends shown here are indicative of regional and national markets as well. Individual countries of the OECD90 and ASIA would, generally speaking, also become more reliant on oil and gas from MAF and REF countries throughout the century. Lack of country-level data in the EMF27 exercise prevents a detailed exploration of this topic, however.


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We recognize the contributions of all EMF27 project partners for enabling the research results reported here, and we thank Jessica Jewell and Joeri Rogelj for making possible certain parts of our analysis. The comments of the editor and anonymous reviewers helped to substantially improve this paper. The contributions of D.M., N.B., and K.R. were supported by funding from the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme under the LIMITS project (grant agreement no. 282846). The views expressed by A.K. are purely those of the author and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission.

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Correspondence to David McCollum.

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This article is part of the Special Issue on “The EMF27 Study on Global Technology and Climate Policy Strategies” edited by John Weyant, Elmar Kriegler, Geoffrey Blanford, Volker Krey, Jae Edmonds, Keywan Riahi, Richard Richels, and Massimo Tavoni.

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McCollum, D., Bauer, N., Calvin, K. et al. Fossil resource and energy security dynamics in conventional and carbon-constrained worlds. Climatic Change 123, 413–426 (2014).

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  • Climate Policy
  • Baseline Scenario
  • Representative Concentration Pathway
  • Integrate Assessment Model
  • Fossil Resource