Does talking about “carbon budgets” have somewhere to go, or nowhere?

Last month, in ieBLOG, we looked at the IPCC 5th Report on climate change and in particular its pronouncement that to hold global warming to 2ºC above preindustrial levels, total emissions cannot exceed 1,000 gigatons of carbon. That is, the world can be said to have a carbon budget of less that 1,000 gigatons of carbon to spend, otherwise the worst case climate change scenarios will unfold. Unfortunately, we have spent more than half of that total budget as 531 gigatons have already been emitted.

We suggested that such talk of a carbon budget was right on target and offered interesting possibilities, but that there would be real push back from fossil fuel and other threatened interests:

Over the past several decades, the fossil fuel interests … have spent millions defending their turf, their interests, against any government regulation that would make their business more difficult, i.e., more costly, by adding more technical requirements and environmental protections.

Imagine how they are going to react to suggestions, let alone legal requirements, that they leave their very valuable fossil fuels in the ground, deep seas, or frigid Arctic. Imagine some governments, e.g., China or Russia, agreeing to not extract their fossil fuels wherever they are. More than 3 trillion tons of carbon are still left in the ground as fossil fuels. Try calculating the loss profits on leaving that in the ground, or seas.

Imagine the developing world countries hearing more developed countries saying, “Sorry but you’ll have to leave any fossil fuels you control in the ground or seas, even though we have already made good use of most of our fossil fuel reserves to support a growing and inexpensive economy.” This is the issue of how to allocate the remaining “carbon budget” fairly among countries.

UN climate talks are supposed to culminate in a global agreement on emissions in 2015. The latest IPCC report, and its use of a carbon budget, will complicate that process. If it finally focuses minds on the incredible challenge ahead, it will be a most useful complication.

Recent press coverage reflects that the threats have been recognized and the push back has begun in earnest and is affecting the conversation about climate change global action. The Huffington Post Green calls the carbon budget a “daunting challenge.”

In a recent Guardian article, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and an important progressive voice, was rather emphatic that “IPCC’s ‘carbon budget’ will not drive Warsaw talks,” the next round of international climate change negotiations. She said, somewhat dismissively, that carbon budgets were a good scientific exercise but that they could not be the basis for negotiations. She added, “Politically it would be very difficult. I don’t know who would hold the pen [in setting out allocations of future budgets].”

As for developing countries, or anyone else, seeking compensation for untapped fossil fuels Figueres said that “It’s not the first time that someone has come to the table with expectations of compensation. I don’t see space for that kind of measure. It remains to be seen.”

The entrenched, regressive climate negotiators are falling back on the worn and unhelpful mantra: each nation should set out its own targets for cutting its carbon and these could be subject to review. In other words, we don’t want any hard targets that would drive us to change our behavior, or bottom line.

The not so funny thing about the IPCC carbon budget talk is that they expect that limiting our carbon budget to an additional 531 gigatons, or less depending on methane emissions, gives us a 66% chance of keeping to a less than 2ºC climate change. What if we want a 90% chance of keeping climate change within some manageable bounds, i.e., less than a 2ºC climate change? Andrew Winston writes in the Guardian that, “What I suspect – and this is scary – is that there is no realistic number that gets us to a 90% or 95% chance of holding to 2 degrees.”

To show how using a carbon budget puts into context our continuing reliance on fossil fuels, Dan Kessler of HuffPostGreen points out:

Here’s where Canada and the tar sands come in. Calculations performed by, using industry filings and commonly accepted carbon accounting, show that the tar sands industry’s 170 billion barrels of economically viable proven reserves are estimated to take up about 17 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget, or about 1/6 of what we have left to burn.

While we can understand that global climate change negotiations are difficult, and talking about a carbon budget makes them more difficult, nevertheless we are running out of space to act and talk about a carbon budget needs to be part of the discourse.



“IPCC’s ‘carbon budget’ will not drive Warsaw talks, says Christiana Figueres: The UN climate change chief says it would be too ‘politically difficult’ to negotiate national allocations of carbon emissions,” Guardian (24 Oct 2013)

“Carbon Budget Message In IPCC Report Reveals Daunting Challenge”

Andrew Winston, “Can carbon budgets divert the world from dangerous climate change?” Guardian (25 Oct 2013).

Roz Pidcock, “Carbon briefing: Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget,” The Carbon Brief (23 Oct 2013).

Daniel Kessler, “The Carbon Bubble, Carbon Budget and Canada’s Tar Sands,” HuffPost Green (31 Oct 2013).







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