Carbon budgets begin to bite: unburnable carbon not an asset, HSBC reports

The world’s big oil and gas companies could face cuts in market valuation of up to 60% if the world acts to cut carbon emissions, a report by bankers HSBC warned last week. Business Green summarises the report’s findings:

A new report from the banking giant finds that 17 per cent of Norwegian company Statoil’s reserves would become “unburnable” in a world where oil and gas use falls as countries seek to keep carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million (ppm), the level the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates is necessary to deliver a 50 per cent chance of limiting long-term temperature rises to 2°C.

HSBC estimates that as much as 6% of BP’s reserves could be at risk, 5% of Total’s, and 2% of Shell’s. But the biggest risk to oil company values could come from reduced demand for oil and gas leading to a fall in prices. Business Green notes:

…the potential value at risk for leading fossil fuel firms could rise to between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of current market capitalisation. BP’s market capitalisation currently stands at around £90bn, compared to Shell’s £147bn, Statoil’s £53bn and BG Group’s £39bn.

The HSBC report is the first acknowledgement by a mainstream financial institution that fossil fuel companies may be over valued in a world where steep cuts in carbon emissions are (one hopes) inevitable. The idea was first mooted in 2011 by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, whose Unburnable Carbon report estimated that as much as 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves would have to remain in the ground. That idea fuelled’s latest campaign, as Bill McKibben explained in an influential Rolling Stone article last year:

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value.

Stockmarket prices are supposed to factor in — or take into account — all of the assets and risk a company faces, but to date there has been little sign that markets have seriously considered “unburnable carbon” as a liability. The HSBC report may be the first sign of a shift in financial markets, but I suspect it will take clear evidence of concerted global action to cut emissions before markets will run scared of carbon. However, when it happens, the change could be swift. There could be carbon carnage on the trading floors as financial markets ditch fossil fuels for renewables.

There’s a stark lesson there for government and business leadership in Australia and New Zealand — and everywhere else where public money is subsidising the production and use of fossil fuels. Today’s investments in extracting fossil carbon only make sense if you are blind to the climate consequences. Those are now inevitable, and so oil and gas reserves — and especially coal fields — will inevitably become stranded assets, a millstone round the neck of the national and global economy.

43 thoughts on “Carbon budgets begin to bite: unburnable carbon not an asset, HSBC reports”

  1. And about time too! Its good to see some realism creeping into the business world. The World Bank report ‘Turn down the heat.’ was a pretty hard hitting report and with a few more like that perhaps John Key will take notice. We are not short of energy we are just using the wrong sort.

  2. So it’s not anything to do with HSBC playing with the markets? The same guys that were recently fined $1.9billion for flouting money laundering laws as their accounts were used by South American drug cartels

    1. …because if the oil majors really cannot realise the value of ‘their’ assets due to regulation designed to constrain emissions then this will clearly have no predictable impact on markets, investor confidence and market capitalization generally, right, andy?

      In much the same way as it’s mysteriously and somewhat conveniently ‘impossible’ to know what CO2 will do in the atmosphere despite 150 years of science telling us.

  3. On of the other thing s that always ‘burns me up’ (boom boom) about the poor old mining behemoths and ‘their’ stranded assets is that it’s not actually their stuff (well, OK, it can be argued that it is in the case of a sovereign company like Norway’s Statoil and similar entities, but the point remains…)

    I’ve spent a lot of years fighting mining companies, and get annoyed by the constant refrain of ‘you’re not letting us develop our assets’. Not so – they’re our assets – you’re just being denied the opportunity to make a profit extracting them for us.

    Which was a risk you ran all along and should have taken into account. Then we get daft lectures about ‘sovereign risk’ as though the state was being capricious by acting in the interests of citizens, rather than the company being at fault for not factoring in the risk – in this case, and many others, the obvious risk – that the state may well do just that.

    1. Totally agree! It is an argument going on in our neck of the woods at this very moment with regards gold (and anything else they can find).

      The whole schemozzle can be sheeted back to Locke and his rather perfunctory definition of the commons – upon which – our rather lopsided modern economy is based. It’s not just mining – eg tropical rain forests are another resource as is fossil water in India, are other resources being hammered with little regard for the commons. (Locke’s definition of the commons was needed so that the British colonists could slice up large tracts of Native America with impunity.) It also did for the commons in England and Scotland as well.

      1. Precisely! I can not agree more.
        Here in Coromandel they want to dredge the harbour for gold left over from the mining days. Too bad for the ecology of the harbour ecosystem as the harbour mud contains significant amounts of Mercury, also from the mining days long past. Besides dredging the harbour will nix the ecosystem of the sea floor. The mining company thinks they ‘own’ the resource like a kid who ‘baggs’ any treasure it sees in the old game….
        Luckily in NZ indigenous Maori rights, especially pertaining to the seabed and foreshore, have got some traction – unlike in our neighbor land across the ditch – and with some good fortune we might avoid the old colonial thinking that permits whoever comes along with deep pockets to start with to annex what they ‘discover’ and call it their own….

        1. Of course we want to keep NZ “clean and green”

          We still need gold and other metals in out computers etc. We need neodymium for our lovely windmills.

          These are all environmentally destructive to mine, but we can get the Chinese to do that for us.

          1. Another fine strawman from Andy…

            You avoid the question asked: Why should our local community allow a private company to assume ownership over a resource? The resource and the obligation to consider and manage its extraction – if at all – belong to the people, not some shareholders far away and interested only in maximizing their private profit!

            As for Gold, how about we focus on recycling, particularly e-waste or mine some the tonnage stuffed away in bank vaults for a change… or ask why we need to wear the stuff around our necks to show off our wealth….

            And neodymium, as has been pointed out to you many times before: Wind mills designs are NOT dependent on these as perfectly efficient turbines are available without the use of permanent magnets:

            Of cause society will need to carry on mining. But if we do so, we can make intelligent choices about the best places to do so. NZ conservation land or Mercury laden estuaries are not the place to go.

            1. You avoid the question asked: Why should our local community allow a private company to assume ownership over a resource?

              Does the local community own the land? Do you think all mineral assets should be state owned? Does this also extend to private property?

              The people of Reefton seem pretty happy that their is a Gold Mine there. It brings in a lot of jobs and wealth for the community. I guess that is bad news for you. Jobs = prosperity = happiness = consumption = bad

              It doesn’t seem to matter too much to you guys if a bunch of bully-boys from Big Wind rock up with their bulldozers and plant their machines all over a communities land. I haven’t seen too many protests from this direction.

            2. “…bully-boys from Big Wind rock up yadda yadda yadda” Many a wind farm proposal is greeted by your ilk with claims that it is being imposed on their countryside, with apocalyptic predictions on what development could do to their own property investment, even though as you well know, such claims are as shoddy and childish as the attendant noise scaremongering.
              Most people in a community with the sense to look at a proposal objectively, will not object to sensible wind farm. The nutters however will just not let it go. I know of one who even takes pride in making specious objections to an offshore wind farm on the other side of the world from where he and his collection of sockpuppets live.

            3. Beaker, it is always really great to get your input. I prefer to comment here under my real name rather than adopt the persona of a muppet character.

              Now that one of the main perpetrators of the Big Wind scam in the UK (i.e Huhne) is facing a jail term for perverting the course of justice (which has a maximum term of life imprisonment) I wonder how much longer it can go on for

            4. I think you will find Andy that most in our community and especially our Maori people here would totally agree that yes: it is the people of this area who have ownership over the seabed and foreshore and over the conservation estates here and not some foreign entity who “baggses” the resource because they so decree at their private board meetings…

              And your yadda yadda about how great mining jobs might be for the community, well look no further than Waihi:

            5. Thomas – I was asking for some legal framework for ownership of the mineral rights. If you have a race-based system that you are proposing, then it is not “the people’s” minerals, it is “some people’s” minerals.

              If you want mineral rights that are truly owned by individuals, then go to the USA, which is the only country that has this

            6. All mineral assets are state owned, andy – do try to keep up!

              You see, this is the difference; the wind industry has no automatic right to access/determine the potential resource above any particular property, whereas the mining industry does because the ‘under’ resource is owned by a state that is the sole arbiter and granter of both exploration and subsequent mining rights (that’s how it works here in the West Island, anyway).

              If you want to see bullying and the over-riding of property rights in action look at the current CSG industry in QLD and NSW.

              So the wind folks have to negotiate, accommodate, and convince the locals – and, of course, they provide construction and maintenance employment and don’t leave a permanently scarred landscape, or even make the slightest dent in the resource they’re exploiting.

            7. Bill writes

              … and don’t leave a permanently scarred landscape, or even make the slightest dent in the resource they’re exploiting.

              Are you serious? That is exactly what wind does – it permanently scars the landscape. At least with a mine you can fill it in after use and return it to its natural state by making it into a lake or something. Wind turbines permanently disfigure the landscape, not just with the turbines themselves, but with the roads, pylons, substations etc that are needed to get this weak form of electricity to its consumers.
              For example

            8. Andy: “this weak form of electricity”.

              Not a physicist then, Andy? [Falls off chair laughing]

              Note to all: Andy’s strange obsession is OT in this thread.

            9. My expression “weak form” was meant to convey low energy density. As opposed to high energy density, like nuclear.

              I’m glad to find my “strange obsession” funny. I’m also glad to share my “strange obsession” with James Lovelock and other prominent figures

            10. Mines don’t require roads and additional unsightly infrastructure? Wow…

              The extent of your biological ignorance is truly breathtaking – I need scarcely do more than quote you –

              At least with a mine you can fill it in after use and return it to its natural state by making it into a lake or something

              This is truly a extraordinary conception of ‘natural state’… and ‘or something’ is the middlebrow version of “n’shit”, as in, “you know, you can just replant some trees and bushes ‘n’shit ‘n’ it’ll be just like before!”

              andy, you know nothing of the natural world; you are a Dunning-Krugerite of biology and ecosystem dynamics, an ignoramus without the wit or insight to catch even the faintest glimmer of the truly monumental scale of what is invisible to you in these matters. Your idiocy has achieved a king of grandeur…

            11. More idiotic nonsense from andyS:

              Wind turbines permanently disfigure the landscape, not just with the turbines themselves, but with the roads, pylons, substations etc that are needed to get this weak form of electricity to its consumers………….

              As opposed to high energy density, like nuclear.

              I guess he has never heard about Windscale/Sellafield where costs may eventually reach 100 billion BPS to “reclaim” the land. Not to mention the huge tract of surrounding land that no one will want to visit because of the never ending legacy of radio-active contamination. It is just not past legacies of disregard for environmental laws and awareness since they have just recently been prosecuted for illegal dumping of radio-active waste in a local landfill:


              Dounreay is another example.

              Seems to me that removing a few wind turbines after their useful life will be orders of magnitude more simple and less expensive than “returning (a nuclear plant) to its natural state by making it into a lake or something”. Too bad that andyS does not let inconvenient facts enter his thinking processes.

            12. Utterly priceless, andy. Next time you make a submission against wind farm development, those words will be quoted to demonstrate the depths of your idiocy.

              Of course, coal and nuclear power stations are always built right in the middle of cities, because they are so clean and safe, and so they don’t need pylons to distribute their nice, shiny electricity? Yeah, right.

            13. Bill, I know nothing of the natural world.

              So 30 year of mountaineering and ski touring in remote parts of the world count for nothing? I have climbed in the Himalayas, the alps, the Czech Republic, Poland, Norway, UK, the USA. I have ski turned in arctic Sweden and Canada.

              I can see the environmental destruction caused by wind energy in Scotland with my own eyes.

              So next time Bill, you are sitting having a Latte with your trendy Green friends in a suburban mall, prattling on about your love of wind energy, maybe you could actually consider that knowing about the natural world is a little bit more than watching David Attenborough docos on Sky TV

            14. So 30 year of mountaineering and ski touring in remote parts of the world count for nothing?

              They certainly count for nothing when you make monumentally ignorant claims regarding water-filled quarries being ‘returned’ to their ‘natural state’! Do you have any idea how foolish you look?

              And, yep, what the hell would I know about the natural world? Well, for a start, I’ve been a photographer for The Wilderness Society, the Department of Environment in its various incarnations, and the Natural Resource Management Board. I just finished a job documenting wetland landscapes and management from the state border to the lower Murray gorge. I’m off to Kangaroo Island to do a shoot for the Greens in a week or so…

              And, oh, that’s right – my living; I’m a professional Revegetation Officer by trade. ~150 000 tubestock local-native seedlings distributed by the scheme I manage and counting. 230 properties and schools on the books to date.

              And as for my campaigning life, that’s the mining industry excluded from nearly 700 000 Ha of intact natural landscapes. To date. I’m aiming for a million.

              (Please note that my engagement with the natural world is not all just about me.)

              And, seriously, you want to talk about remote?… Try the Mawson Plateau or the Kallakoopah Creek sometime.

              I’m certainly a big admirer of Attenborough’s – a bona-fide climate-change activist, these days – but I’m a tea drinker by inclination…

            15. andyS “I prefer to comment here under my real name rather than adopt the persona of a muppet character.” Hi andyS, as you know I work in the UK wind sector. Your soundalike johnD used to call me the ‘wind shill’ but then johnD went and andyS arrived.
              In my professional work I have to maintain an open and approachable demeanour for consultation with all interested parties. It is part of my job to keep open an avenue of involvement to anyone. This includes twits such as yourself. All they have to do is to reign in the offensive lies and personal abuse, and I will facilitate their participation in the planning process.
              Twits such as yourself are prone to make appalling misrepresentations of other peoples statements, you know the stuff, statements out of context and with critical elements redacted to make mischief. I tend to call it lying. As you object to UK wind farm applications and have a self declared network of wind NIMBY mates in the UK, I think that there would be a significant risk of a twit like you lying to others about what I said here if you knew my name.
              Anyway, well done to you andyS for continuing to comment here under that title after your sockpuppet activity was held up for justified ridicule.
              “Now that one of the main perpetrators of the Big Wind scam in the UK (i.e Huhne)…” Oh andyS, you are a twit. Was the UK policy on wind power any different before or after Huhne’s time on the front bench, than it was during that brief period? And ‘scam’? Grow up!

        2. Indeed. As Angela Davis once said, “The real criminals are those who have stolen the wealth of the world from its people”.

          Or, to quote my favourite journalist,

          “The demands of the ultra-rich have been dressed up as sophisticated economic theory and applied regardless of the outcome. The complete failure of this world-scale experiment is no impediment to its repetition. This has nothing to do with economics. It has everything to do with power.”

    1. Huhne has merely confirmed to the rest of us that he is a bottom-feeding parasite whose only aim in life is to further his own position on the greasy pole of politics.

      He is hardly alone, of course. Most of the current crop of UK politicians are on the make, some way or other, giving each other plump little earners at the expense of the taxpayers.

      I am sure Mr Huhne will find himself a nice little EU position made to fit, once he has served a little time out.

  4. Ctg, I am glad that you find my comments about pylons amusi g and priceless.

    It is not a secret. Try Googling Scottish Super Pylons, for example.

    When you have a low energy density power geographically dispersed system like wind in remote parts of Scotland, you need a lot of pylons across the land to get the power to consumers.

    It is strange that you think it is funny when there are advocacy groups campaigning against this, and numerous newspaper articles on the subject.

  5. andy writes – “At least with a mine you can fill it in after use and return it to its natural state by making it into a lake or something.”

    Yeah Right!

    Try filling in the open cast mine at Waihi – a ‘small’ one by comparison.

    ps Ever been to Waihi andy? Talked to the people there about how they “love” the presence of Newmount digging away under their houses day and night? As usual you have no idea about what your talking about.

  6. So 30 year of mountaineering and ski touring in remote parts of the world count for nothing?

    Andy, go look at your old climbing and skiing haunts now, and weep. Do you think your children will have the same opportunities as we had?


    The UIAA General Assembly, meeting in Banff, Canada, on 14 Oct 2006:

    Expresses the UIAA’s concern at the threat to the earth’s living resources, including but not limited to, mountain areas and human communities, from the effects of climate change and the role of fossil fuel use in contributing to these changes.

    Recognises the crucial contribution that mountaineers can make to public understanding of climate change issues through their historical observations and current knowledge of shrinking glaciers and

    Urges all mountaineering associations and their members to consider both the implications of climate change for their own activities and also the opportunities they have to influence other organisations, from the public to the private sector, to greater understanding of the climate change
    crisis and to increase the readiness of these other interests to take action to tackle climate change problems…

    1. I am visiting some so called old haunts in the French Pyrenees in April for some ski touring. Many of the ski areas are currently shut because they are buried under 4m of snow, so there should be plenty of touring right through to June, just like when I visited my old haunts in the same place last year.

  7. Further to the above exchange on the unrestricted rape of the earth by mining companies for personal gain:
    Our caring Government has just appointed as the “watchdog” for NZ mining operations – the job will be to regulate New Zealand’s mineral sector including permit allocation – the former public relations manager at Newmont Gold, Sefton Darby. As is now normal with any public service appointment by this “shower” they see no conflict of interest whatsoever.

      1. Premise: All resources are owned by the people of NZ, not private interests.
        Opposition to mining is warranted where:
        1) A resource that is owned by the people of New Zealand is exploited by private interests without due recompense or consideration of the wishes of the people or value retained by the people.
        2) The exploitation of the resource causes environmental damage above what the people find acceptable.
        3) The gains for the people made through the exploitation of the resource are not adequate to compensate for degradation or long term consequences.
        4) The location is not suitable for mining due to the effect this would have on stakeholders.

        Clearly mining will be necessary for our civilization, but ultimately most mining is non-sustainable as evidently at some point the resource is gone and the infrastructure and economy build on its exploitation will collapse, as has been amply demonstrated through history.

        1. Putting a mine in the middle of a town is obviously very bad.
          However, when Britain plans its fourth biggest onshore windfarm, and 90% of the locals are against it, including the local council, you would think that their views might be represented.

          However, this is not the case. The Secretary of State overturned the council decision and went ahead with the development anyway

          So my Strange Little Obsession, that gets media coverage in the UK every day, shows a distinct lack of democratic values. Needless to say, these values are driven by EU directives, a distinctly anti democratic institution.

          So I am interested when you say that mineral rights are owned by The People whilst at the same time you seem to turn a blind eye to the erosion of democracy across Europe and other parts of the world.

      2. I was about to say much the same as Thomas but he has said it much more succinctly than me.
        There is a time and a place for all things,
        Unfortunately the mining industry has a very poor track record of environmental care. Oil in particular, externalises its costs to a shocking extent. eg, the environmental devastation of Nigeria:
        Schedule 4 areas of the conservation estate were be out of bounds. NZ has been down this track before, and the current proposals to relitigate these areas, solely for the private profit of a few people, are totally unacceptable in my opinion. For instance Newmont has its eye on the area behind Whangamata. This is a leave well alone site, for this very reason:

  8. On the subject of natural experience that Andy S seems to base his total `I am one with nature` qualification to explain all things natural may I offer my most humble experience.
    In the late 60s through to late 80s I was privileged to climb many alpine regions NZ and elsewhere. In the early 70s I climbed extensively in the Tasman glacier region when it was in a relatively pristine condition.
    Several years ago a 15 mill. tonne block of ice calved off the end of the glacier. The largest `calving` since records began (late 1800) in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. (Which I am also privilege
    to have experience of).
    The local media proclaimed it as a ` Tourist attraction and a photo opportunity, but don`t get to close`
    Trevor Chin, noted nz glaciologist (in a small by line at the end of the article where nobody notices) stated that at this rate of melt all the alpine glaciers in nz would be gone within 20 years.
    To me personally that was totally devastating news. It was like hearing of a lifelong friend having been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
    What is more devastating is that nobody really gives a tinkers cuss about this event.
    I am not qualified to comment on the ramifications of future water supply to Canterbury s summer aquifers but by simple logic one could deduce that as water generally flows downhill that if there is none in the alpine region the plains won`t get any. So `adapt` to that Mr dairy and crop farmer. (`We will adapt` appears to be the standard mantra of our newly formed Dept. of Climate Change`).
    My point is that this is one only relatively minor example of serious events that have occurred in the hundreds over the last decade which are obviously linked in frequency and magnitude to climate change. ( I am not interested in any challenge to this point of view as the science and the physical evidence is abundantly clear for those with the wit to understand).
    If this is .9deg with the latent magnitude yet to occur due to the delay effect I do not want to imagine 2degs. let alone anything beyond.
    In reference to the original topic if we choose to not leave it in the ground then so be it but don`t wine about the consequences.
    The planet will adjust, we will loose

    1. I don’t think andy will be too concerned. If he can magically transmit nuclear-powered electricity without pylons, I’m sure he can also magically transfer non-existent glacier water to the plains of Canterbury.

        1. The inverse square law defeated Tesla’s approach.
          I rather thought the effects of a high radiation environment on humans were demonstrated during the second world war when a couple of navy ratings got burned while working in a strong radar beam. We do have microwave ovens!

          However, propositions concerning space based power generation rely on power transmission by beam, while Earth is already powered, using the inverse square law, by a big space based nuclear generator, but on Earth there are interesting developments in the transmission of power by resonance albeit over short distances.

        2. An anecdote to that: A mate of mine who is an experienced airline captain told me of an incident many years back where a pilot did not turn the weather radar off in the nose cone of his plane when it was parked at the gate. A photographer, having old fashioned flash bulbs in his camera bag, walked past the nose cone of the airplane close to the windows of the departure lounge and Bazonk!!$%! the flash bulbs went off and reportedly caused some burn injuries to the photographer….

  9. What is more devastating is that nobody really gives a tinkers cuss about this event.

    Yup. The average human living in one of the wealthy societies has no appreciation how this degradation of the natural world is eventually going to negatively impact their lives. And I write that with deliberate understatement. There will be a lot of tears before bedtime in the future.

Leave a Reply