The carbon budget is already exhausted

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Joe Hockey tried to manufacture a fiscal budget emergency whilst the real budget emergency – the carbon budget – remains hidden from view.

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Joe Hockey tried to manufacture a fiscal budget emergency when there wasn’t one, whilst the real budget emergency – the climate carbon budget emergency – remains hidden from view.

The brutal reality we now face is that, practically speaking, there is no longer a “carbon budget” for burning fossil fuels while still achieving a two-degree Celsius (2°C) future; and the 2°C cap is now known to be dangerously too high. This challenges the international community’s climate policy-making paradigm.

That policy-making process has viewed up to 2°C of global warming as manageable, and largely achievable by international treaty and incremental, “win-win”, pain-free adjustments to economic incentives within neo-liberal, free-market economies.

But it is now clear that this strategy has run out of time. We all wish it had worked, but it hasn’t. There is no life left in it. Here’s why.

Firstly, we are heading towards systems failure and a “great disruption” due to planetary limits and unbounded growth based on the unsustainable use of finite resources, as Paul Gilding has well demonstrated. And, says Gilding, company strategies and business models that have been working for generations are collapsing and  there is now a necessary and “just but undeclared war” on coal conducted by the market as it better assesses risk and climate change, unleashing “creative destruction” on the fossil fuel sector that will strand assets and break companies.

In reality, it’s “win-lose” because the sustainability frame is not good news for many businesses and parts of the economy.  This is the tip of the iceberg if our socio-economic structures are to be remade in a fashion that provide a healthy future for people and planet. Gilding has pointed out that it is an illusion to think these contradictions can resolved without large-scale disruption, yet that is precisely what the present policy-making paradigm assumes.

Secondly, 2°C is not a safe target. It’s the boundary between dangerous and very dangerous, and 1°C higher than experienced during the whole of human civilisation. The last time greenhouse gas levels were as high as they are today, humans did not exist. This is an experiment we do not know the full result of. But we do know many major ecosystems will be lost, seas will rise many metres, swamping much of human civilisation. There is new evidence to suggest that the current conditions affecting the West Antarctic ice sheet are sufficient to drive between 1.2 and 4 metres of sea level rise, and evidence that Greenland will contribute more quickly than previously anticipated.


spratt graph


Thirdly, there is no “carbon budget” left for burning fossils fuels. The IPCC and others have emphasised how much “burnable carbon” we have left, but this is a dangerous illusion. It is based on assumptions that don’t hold up in the real world. It assumes high risks of failure, does not account for the large on-going emissions associated with food production, and makes unrealistic assumptions about the stability of Arctic and other carbon stores.

Management of catastrophic risk – such as warming of more than 2°C – demands very low probabilities of failures, particularly as irreversible outcomes are likely. If a risk-averse (pro-safety) approach is applied – say, of less than 10% probability of exceeding the 2°C target – to carbon budgeting, there is simply no budget available, because it has already been used up.  A study from The Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research shows that “the combination of a 2°C warming target with high probability of success is now unreachable” using the current suite of policy measures, because the budget has expired.

As well, on-going greenhouse emissions associated with food production and deforestation are often conveniently pushed to one side in discussing carbon budgets. UK scientists have shown that if some reasonably optimistic assumptions are made about deforestation and food-related emissions for the rest of the century, then most emission reduction scenarios are incompatible with holding warming to 2ºC, even with a high 50% probability of exceeding the target. In other words, food and deforestation take up the remaining budget, leaving no space for fossil fuel emissions.

In addition, the IPCC carbon budget analysis makes optimistic and risky assumptions about the stability of the Arctic, and of polar and other carbon stores such as permafrost. It uses modelling which does not include explicit representation of permafrost soil carbon decomposition in response to future warming, and does not consider slow feedbacks associated associated with vegetation changes and ice sheets. Recent research suggests these events could happen well below 2°C of warming, so they should be taken into account, but they are not. Accounting for the possible release of methane from melting permafrost and ocean sediment implies a substantially lower budget.

With this understanding of the real carbon budget, we now have a choice to make. We can accept much higher levels of warming of 3–5°C that will destroy most species, most people and most of the world’s ecosystems; a set of impacts some more forthright scientists say are incompatible with the maintenance of human civilisation.

Or we can conceive of a safe-climate emergency-action approach which would aim to reduce global warming back to the range of conditions experienced during the last 10,000 years, the period of human civilisation and fixed settlement.

This would involve fast and large emissions reduction through radical energy demand reductions, whilst a vast scaling-up of clean energy production was organised, together with the remaking of many of our essential systems such as transport and food production, with the target being zero net emissions. In addition, there would need to be a major commitment to atmospheric carbon dioxide drawdown measures. This would need to be done at a speed and scale more akin to the “war economy”, where social and economic priority is given to what is perceived to be an overwhelming existential threat.

After 30 years of climate policy and action failure, we are in deep trouble and now have to throw everything we can muster at the climate challenge. This will be demanding and disruptive, because there are no longer any non-radical, incremental paths available.

Prof. Kevin Anderson and Dr Alice Bows, writing in the journal Nature, say that “any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints” and that “catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it (unfettered choice, deregulation and so on) could provide an opportunity to think differently about climate change”.

Anderson says there is no longer a non-radical option, and for developed economies to play an equitable role in holding warming to 2°C (with 66% probability), emissions compared to 1990 levels would require at least a 40% reduction by 2018, 70% reduction by 2024, and 90% by 2030. This would require “in effect a Marshall plan for energy supply”. As well low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions and they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption, what he calls a radical emission reduction strategy. All this suggests that even holding warming to a too-high 2°C limit now requires an emergency approach.

Emergency action has proven fair and necessary for great social and economic challenges we have faced before. Call it the great disruption, the war economy, emergency mode, or what you like; the story is still the same, and it is now the only remaining viable path.

David Spratt will be speaking at Breakthrough2014 on 21-22 June at The Spot, University of Melbourne. Registrations are open.

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  1. Luke 6 years ago

    You can register for Breakthrough 2014 at

  2. Motorshack 6 years ago

    Anyone familiar with my comments over the last couple of years will perhaps know how aggressively I have worked to reduce my personal carbon footprint – no car, no meat, no plane rides, tiny house, etc. This is why.

    A radical reduction in carbon output is the only possible way to minimize the lethal catastrophe that we are handing to all our descendants.

    At the rate we are going, we might as well shoot them in their sleep and be done with it. It would probably be the more humane way to treat them.

    Note also that I say “minimize”, not “avoid”.

    Paleo-climatologists now have good reason to think that 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is already enough to melt all the icecaps and glaciers on the planet. It will still take a few centuries, but already we have probably locked in several hundred feet of sea-level rise.

    So, if you want your children and grandchildren to have any chance at all of a reasonable planet, you had better stop waiting for governments and big business to get their heads out of their asses. It’s not going to happen.

    Your only possible option is to take charge of your personal carbon output, and do everything you can to reduce it. And I do mean everything.

    Anything else is tantamount to murdering your grandchildren.

  3. Alan Baird 6 years ago

    Joe Hockey’s emergency is a concoction. His solution is a loony miasma of “one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back” carefully ignoring things like the chaplains in schools program being absolutely INTEGRAL to Oz’s future (and deserving of a quarter of a billion!) and the paid parental scheme (which will cost absolutely nothing apparently) still hangs around like a bad smell, waiting in the wings. Only if you work for Murdoch or Singleton does this all make sense.

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