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An Update on Our Carbon Budget

by Nora Germain

2020 has been an exhausting and brutal year for many people around the world. Despite widespread uncertainty, new leadership in America is now a sure thing in 2021, and with that comes another chance for America to start leading the world through the climate crisis. Much like the race to the moon, the world’s nations could treat this as a new era, a race to decarbonize, and we can’t do it fast enough. 

I was fortunate enough to see climate activist Greta Thunberg speak in person last year, and more recently, she released a new video which addresses the state of the world’s rapidly decreasing carbon budget. The concept and science behind our carbon budget is not often discussed in mainstream media, so I wanted to give an update on it and explain why it’s important, using her concise video as a guide.

The world is heating due to human beings emitting greenhouse gases (mostly carbon), and we can now measure how much carbon will produce a certain increase in global temperature. Of course, there are positive feedback loops and other factors to consider, and the heating is not equal around all parts of the world. It’s more extreme at the poles, for example. Scientists have thus focused on measuring temperature increase in degrees Celsius on a global average.

The carbon budget (IPCC) is very simply, a certain amount of carbon that the world can emit in order to stay below a certain amount of heating. Once we have emitted more than that, we are going beyond a heat tolerance limit and further endangering the ability for humans to survive.

Sadly, the carbon budget runs out in just 7 years. That means that if we keep emitting the way we have been, we will “run out” of the carbon we can “safely” emit (although it’s already not safe for many nations around the world) and after that, we will be emitting more than we can handle as a species, with various severe and inescapable consequences.

Right now, a popular goal in the scientific community is to stop the Earth from heating beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. The IPCC graphic linked above shows 2 degrees as the example, but every fraction of a degree counts, and many believe that 1.5 is still achievable so it must be fought for at all costs.

This book explains a number of hypothetical scenarios that humans on Earth would experience if we go beyond that, to 3 or 5 degrees of warming and so forth. I’ll save you from reading the whole thing and tell you that it’s not a pretty scenario. In fact, a lot of people would die, and not just in storms and fires, and not just in developing nations.

Every country has a certain amount of responsibility to the others in this fight to stay below 1.5 degrees, although the United States has, as you can imagine, a truly huge responsibility for having caused an enormous portion of this warming over the past several decades. We are in something called “climate debt.”

It’s imperative that all nations work together on climate and do it quickly, not passing on responsibility to neighboring nations or nations who have done more or less damage. It’s everyone’s problem and everyone will live with the consequences should we not act in time. 

Of course with this new American leadership, we have an ability to rejoin the Paris Agreement, now 5 years old, and this is an important step and strong signal to the rest of the world. However, this agreement does not go nearly far enough in order to stay below 1.5 degrees and furthermore, the world is very far behind reaching it. These two problems are going to be difficult to surmount.

Thus, climate goals for 2030 or 2050 are almost irrelevant when one faces the math of the carbon budget, which is based on the best available science. The carbon budget runs out in 7 years, so why are we talking about reducing emissions in 30? Due to the “baked-in” effects of these emissions and the heat they trap, we face catastrophe in our oceans, our forests, our ice caps, our coral reefs, our agriculture, our coastlines, and so forth much sooner than that, so we must act in that frame of mind. It’s not feasible to hope to start drawing down in ten or twenty years. We need to draw down in a dramatic way starting yesterday.

Another frustration with these far-off targets is that many of them aspire to achieve “net-zero” emissions which means that the emissions will be somehow offset, but these types of calculations can be done very creatively and hypothetically, so they are not reliable enough in the life or death scenario we currently face. Decarbonization, both natural and technological, is the only way forward, or some would say, the only way through. 

We know that corporations and governments around the world want to appear that they are solving these problems, but how willing are they to do the real work — whether or not they get the credit? Greta explained, to paraphrase, that there are no climate leaders. It’s just you and me. I think what she means is that we are on our own. We can’t necessarily rely on people in power to know or care about the carbon budget or to take bold enough action in a timetable that is relevant to the problem. 

So what can we do? I believe it’s important for all people to do their small part wherever possible, but since this problem is on a global scale, it will take global action to solve it. People around the world must pressure their governments to declare a climate emergency, and to understand the carbon budget so they can act in a relevant manner. Nations can mobilize their militaries to help with new infrastructure projects, put people to work revolutionizing the way we grow and distribute food, and the wealthier nations can provide aid and funding to developing ones who need support. Indigenous lands can be protected and expanded, and local governments can learn from Indigenous experts about conservation, biodiversity preservation and resource management. Those are only a few examples, but legislation along these lines has been proposed, most notably the Green New Deal.

It’s been said that we need “a billion climate activists.” What this means is that the world becomes so awake to this crisis, so united in our front to face it, and so committed to finding a solution, that there is no way for governments or corporations to delay or deny any longer. It means that we force them to see reality as it is, and to act. 

It’s one thing to passively notice that the decarbonization era is an opportunity to make money. It’s quite another to act with the urgency required to save humanity from certain catastrophe and to ensure the decarbonization era happens. It’s time for everyone to stop simply observing what is happening and to take steps to contribute to and accelerate the solutions. Maybe some people can even invent their own.These solutions will inevitably vary between rural and urban environments, rich and poor countries and so forth, but with a billion climate activists, I believe this crisis can be solved. It’s important to remember that it did not fall from the sky. It was caused by humans, so humans can fix it, and fix it we must!