guest post by Steve Easterbrook
(8) To stay below 2°C of warming, most fossil fuels must stay buried in the ground
Perhaps the most profound advance since the previous IPCC report is a characterization of our global carbon budget. This is based on a finding that has emerged strongly from a number of studies in the last few years: the expected temperature change has a simple linear relationship with cumulative CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial era:
(Click to enlarge.)
The chart is a little hard to follow, but the main idea should be clear: whichever experiment we carry out, the results tend to lie on a straight line on this graph. You do get a slightly different slope in one experiment, the “1% percent CO2 increase per year” experiment, where only CO2 rises, and much more slowly than it has over the last few decades. All the more realistic scenarios lie in the orange band, and all have about the same slope.
This linear relationship is a useful insight, because it means that for any target ceiling for temperature rise (e.g. the UN’s commitment to not allow warming to rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels), we can easily determine a cumulative emissions budget that corresponds to that temperature. So that brings us to the most important paragraph in the entire report, which occurs towards the end of the summary for policymakers:
Limiting the warming caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions alone with a probability of >33%, >50%, and >66% to less than 2°C since the period 1861–1880, will require cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources to stay between 0 and about 1560 GtC, 0 and about 1210 GtC, and 0 and about 1000 GtC since that period respectively. These upper amounts are reduced to about 880 GtC, 840 GtC, and 800 GtC respectively, when accounting for non-CO2 forcings as in RCP2.6. An amount of 531 [446 to 616] GtC, was already emitted by 2011.
Unfortunately, this paragraph is a little hard to follow, perhaps because there was a major battle over the exact wording of it in the final few hours of inter-governmental review of the “Summary for Policymakers”. Several oil states objected to any language that put a fixed limit on our total carbon budget. The compromise was to give several different targets for different levels of risk.
Let’s unpick them. First notice that the targets in the first sentence are based on looking at CO2 emissions alone; the lower targets in the second sentence take into account other greenhouse gases, and other earth systems feedbacks (e.g. release of methane from melting permafrost), and so are much lower. It’s these targets that really matter:
• To give us a one third (33%) chance of staying below 2°C of warming over pre-industrial levels, we cannot ever emit more than 880 gigatonnes of carbon.
• To give us a 50% chance, we cannot ever emit more than 840 gigatonnes of carbon.
• To give us a 66% chance, we cannot ever emit more than 800 gigatonnes of carbon.
Since the beginning of industrialization, we have already emitted a little more than 500 gigatonnes. So our remaining budget is somewhere between 300 and 400 gigatonnes of carbon. Existing known fossil fuel reserves are enough to release at least 1000 gigatonnes. New discoveries and unconventional sources will likely more than double this. That leads to one inescapable conclusion:
Most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay buried in the ground.
We’ve never done that before. There is no political or economic system anywhere in the world currently that can persuade an energy company to leave a valuable fossil fuel resource untapped. There is no government in the world that has demonstrated the ability to forgo the economic wealth from natural resource extraction, for the good of the planet as a whole. We’re lacking both the political will and the political institutions to achieve this. Finding a way to achieve this presents us with a challenge far bigger than we ever imagined.
You can download all of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis here. Click below to read any part of this series:
- The warming is unequivocal.
- Humans caused the majority of it.
- The warming is largely irreversible.
- Most of the heat is going into the oceans.
- Current rates of ocean acidification are unprecedented.
- We have to choose which future we want very soon.
- To stay below 2°C of warming, the world must become carbon negative.
- To stay below 2°C of warming, most fossil fuels must stay buried in the ground.
Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis is also available chapter by chapter here:
- Observations: Atmosphere and Surface
- Observations: Ocean
- Observations: Cryosphere
- Information from Paleoclimate Archives
- Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles
- Clouds and Aerosols
- Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
- Evaluation of Climate Models
- Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional
- Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability
- Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility
- Sea Level Change
- Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change
- Annex I: Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections
- Annex II: Climate System Scenario Tables
- Annex III: Glossary
- Annex IV: Acronyms
- Annex V: Contributors to the WGI Fifth Assessment Report
- Annex VI: Expert Reviewers of the WGI Fifth Assessment Report