Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

A Carbon Bubble, Macroeconomic Impacts, and Future Fossil Fuel Assets

Date and Time
Friday, February 22, 2019 - 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Gross Hall 103


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Emissions reductions in line with the Paris Agreement (PA) imply large changes in the way fossil fuels are used. Fossil fuels account for around 80% of energy consumption; if PA targets are met, their demand would peak and decline substantially before 2050, and reach near-zero use sometime between 2050 and 2100. Meanwhile, in anticipation of some climate policy being implemented, and simply due to energy efficiency policy and technological progress, the demand for fossil fuels may also decline with respect to expectations even without the adoption of climate policies designed to achieve the PA. If the demand for fossil fuels turns out substantially lower than expectations of return on investment, a carbon bubble may have formed, and a sudden burst could affect economic activity substantially.

In this research, we examine whether a carbon bubble exists, and assess the macroeconomic impacts of potential future stranded fossil fuel assets (SFFA), in other words, fossil fuel assets that lose their value. We use an integrated energy-economy-climate assessment model, formed of a combination of a representation of technological diffusion for electricity generation, transportation and household heating with a highly disaggregated macroeconometric model of the global economy, and a fully dynamical carbon cycle-climate system model of intermediate complexity. We find that a carbon bubble indeed is forming in the current technological trajectory, and that macroeconomic losses in the Paris Agreement scenario are important and very different for different countries.

Globally, we find a total discounted loss to the financial sector could be of the order of $4tn (in 2016 dollars; $12tn when not discounted), larger than the sub-prime mortgage loss that triggered the 2008 financial crisis.

This event is co-sponsored by the Duke University Energy Initiative's Energy Research Seminar Series, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and Risk@Duke.

Note: Jean-Francois Mercure is also presenting a special workshop global energy modeling on Feb. 21st.


Jean-Francois Mercure is a computational scientist in the area of energy, innovation, macroeconomics and climate change. He is a Senior Lecturer of Global Systems at the University of Exeter. His primary expertise lies in technological change dynamics and evolutionary economics, as well as innovation research and complexity science. He was formerly deputy director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research (4CMR) and head of its energy modelling team. He designs and builds computational models for climate change mitigation research and analyzes the theoretical underpinnings of contemporary energy-economy models, with particular attention to the process of innovation and technological change. He co-led the development of the integrated assessment model E3ME-FTT-GENIE, widely used by the European Commission and national governments.