Can Technology Unlock Unburnable Carbon?

The report examines the current state of knowledge regarding the ‘unburnable carbon’ issue, and the extent to which fossil fuel carbon management technology (such as CCS) can unlock hydrocarbon reserves while still meeting climate targets.


In 2015, the Conference Of the Parties in Paris (COP21) reached a universal agreement on climate change with the aim of limiting global warming to below 2 °C. In order to stay below 2 °C, the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2)
released, or ‘carbon budget’ must be less than 1,000 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2. At the current emission rate, this budget will be eroded within the next thirty years. Meeting this target on a global scale is challenging and will require prompt and effective climate change mitigation action.

The concept of ‘unburnable carbon’ emerged in 2011, and stems from the observation that if all known fossil fuel reserves are extracted and converted to CO2 (unabated), it would exceed the carbon budget and have a very significant effect on the climate. Therefore, if global warming is to be limited to the COP21 target, some of the known fossil fuel reserves should remain unburnt. Several recent reports have highlighted the scale of the challenge, drawing on scenarios of climate change mitigation and their implications for the projected consumption of fossil fuels.


Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a critical and available mitigation opportunity that is often overlooked. The positive contribution of CCS technology to timely and cost-effective decarbonisation of the energy system is widely recognised. However, while some studies have considered the role of CCS in enabling access to more fossil fuels, no detailed analysis on this issue has been undertaken.

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