When trying to figure out the best way to address climate change, people may look to carbon budgets for an idea of how much more carbon we can emit.
There’s both pros and cons to this approach.
In this guide, we look at why that may and may not be a good idea, and what we need to know about how much more carbon we can really emit when considering the impact climate change might have on our future.
What Is The Carbon Budget?
A carbon budget is an amount of future carbon emissions that can’t be exceeded if we want to stay under a certain temperature limit.
At the moment, it is thought that it’s very unlikely we can still stay under 1.5 degrees total warming, so, a 2 degree carbon budget is often the main discussion point.
- The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide emissions we can emit while still having a likely chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees celcius above pre-industrial levels.
- The budget [was around] 1 trillion tonnes of C02 [when it was developed]
- As of 2011, we’ve already gone through 52% of the budget
So, How Much More Carbon Can We Emit To Limit Global Warming To 2 Degrees Celcius Above Pre Industrial Levels?
- 48% of 1 trillion tonnes is 485PgC of carbon – this is how much we have left in the budget as of 2011
- If we continue at current emission rates without any intervention, we are on track to exhaust the budget by the year 2045
- To stay within the budget, global emissions have to peak by 2020 and decrease steeply each year after
- The world is currently not on track to stay within the 2 degrees carbon budget
- Based on estimates made in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report (AR5), there would be around 120 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) remaining from the beginning of 2018 – or around three years of current emissions – for a 66% chance of avoiding 1.5C warming. For a 50/50 chance of exceeding 1.5C, the remaining budget was a modestly larger 268GtCO2 – or around seven years of current emissions.
- The IPCC’s new SR15 significantly revises these numbers. It raises the budget for a 66% of avoiding 1.5C to 420GtCO2 – or 10 years of current emissions. Similarly, the budget for a 50/50 chance of exceeding 1.5C is increased to 580GtCO2 – 14 years of current emissions.
- If we are able to decrease CO2 emissions to zero by the year 2080, we might avoid 2℃ of global temperature increase, but would pass 1.5℃ before the year 2040.
Although very unlikely, some people are still optimistic about 1.5 degrees warming:
- global CO2 emissions need to fall to net-zero by mid-century to avoid 1.5C of warming.
What Is The Expected Impact On The World At 2 Degrees Global Warming?
Read more in this guide:
There’s more information on the impact at 2 degrees in this infographic – https://www.wri.org/resources/data-visualizations/infographic-global-carbon-budget
It’s also worth noting that the recent Cape Town water shortage caused mainly by a severe drought, was made up to 3 times more likely a risk because of global warming (read more at http://theconversation.com/global-warming-has-already-raised-the-risk-of-more-severe-droughts-in-cape-town-107625). With a further warming up to 2 degrees, this risk increases another 3 fold.
What Are The Emissions Pathways To Other Warming Scenarios Other Than 2 Degrees?
Read more in this guide:
But, … Here Is The Truth To Know About Carbon Budgets, & Figuring Out How Much More Carbon We Can Really Emit In The Future
Coming up with a neat figure about how much more carbon we can emit sounds great – but, we should know that the models and calculations used for these estimations are far from perfect.
If anything, they should be viewed as a very, very rough estimate only.
There are still gaps and uncertainties in the data we base the calculations on, and the models we use to forecast future emission and warming scenarios.
Some scientists and sources say we may even be underestimating how much carbon we have left in the budget, and we can emit a lot more before 2 degrees is reached.
There’s several reasons for this, such as:
- Uncertainties to do with climate science, future social and economic factors, and climate forecast modelling
- Questions over carbon emission reporting numbers provided by some countries
This is also evidenced by the expanded carbon budget in the newest IPCC report:
- The newly published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on 1.5C (SR15) significantly expands the budget for a 66% chance of avoiding 1.5C to the equivalent of 10 years of current emissions. This compares to the IPCC’s fifth assessment report (AR5), which put it at around three years.
- It is important to keep in mind that the global ‘carbon budget’ [is really a simplification]. … there is actually a variety of possible carbon budgets, and their size depends on a number of factors such as: the probability of staying below our two-degree warming target, the rates of decarbonization, and the contribution of non-CO2 greenhouse gases.
Read more about calculating the carbon budget at https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/according-new-ipcc-report-world-track-exceed-its-carbon-budget-12-years
What’s The Best Approach To Managing Carbon Emissions Then?
We still would want to pay attention to carbon budgets provided to us as a rough indicator.
Paying attention to future emission scenarios and various emission pathways would also be wise.
But, the plan still should be to (ideally):
- Decrease human caused carbon emissions (mainly from burning fossil fuels) to zero as soon as possible
- Sequester and absorb existing carbon from the atmosphere to the best of our ability
Uncertainty and rough/over simplified carbon budget estimates don’t remove risk associated with a warming planet.
It’s about covering the potential risk of the consequences/impact that further warming might bring – especially when talking about getting to the point where it doesn’t matter how much we reduce emissions, as natural feedback processes continually amplify the warming already set in motion.
How Much Fossil Fuels Can We Burn To Stay Within Our Carbon Budget?
- if the world burned all of its currently known reserves [of fossil fuels] (without the use of carbon capture and storage technology), we would emit a total of nearly 750 billion tonnes of carbon.
- This means that we have to leave around two-thirds of known reserves in the ground if we want to meet our global climate targets
- … if we wanted to increase the probability of keeping warming below two degrees celsius to 80 percent, we would need stricter carbon limits, and would have to leave 75-80 percent of fossil fuels untouched
More Resources On The Future Of Climate Change
- Forecasts & Projections For Climate Change & Global Warming In The Future (up to 2100)
- What Are The Targets For Climate Change/Global Warming
- What Is A Sustainable Carbon Footprint (Per Person) To Aim For? (a 3 tonne carbon footprint lifestyle per person – based only on cutting current per person CO2 footprints by 80% by 2050 – might be a very rough carbon footprint each individual can aim for. Having said that, there are other variables like population growth to consider)
14. https://www.cicero.oslo.no/no/posts/klima/how-much-carbon-dioxide-can-we-emit (lists the 4 main choices someone must make in choosing a carbon budget, and the importance of negative emissions)