Myth of climate “burnable carbon” – IPCC’s “carbon budget” gives one-in-three chance of failure

I recently made several points that need to be hammered over and over between now and the U.N. climate meeting in Paris in late 2015:

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 or CMP11 will be held in Paris, France in 2015. This will be the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties (CMP 11) to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The conference objective is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world. Leadership of the negotiations is yet to be determined.

The purpose of the Paris meeting is to sign a binding agreement on carbon emissions. The purpose of the IPCC is to create a scientific framework for the discussions of the treaty-making FCCC.

All of the talk in the lead-up to Paris will be about how much “burnable carbon” we can still emit. In other words, what’s our remaining “carbon budget”? Or more to the point, how much more money can Exxon make and still be one of the good guys?

Built into those U.N. discussions are a couple of assumptions fostered by the IPCC:

▪ That 2°C global warming is a safe target.
▪ That doing what gives us a 66% chance of achieving the 2° warming target is a good enough.
▪ That Exxon, the Saudis, David Koch and others deserve to make some money from their buried assets.

You’ll hear about this endlessly in the next year or so. Now is the time to counter with the truth and tell it to everyone you know.

None of those statements is true

There’s not a word of truth to any of the bulleted statements above, and the time to counter them is now, before David Gregory and George Stephanopoulos tell a hungry nation — “Here’s what we know to be true.” If Big Media latches onto the statements above, the climate war is lost until a real crisis, like Miami sinking beneath the waves, occurs.

So please, help counter the lies. They exist only to keep the carbon industry (David Koch, Rex Tillerson and Exxon) in wealth and operation. Our goal in the next few weeks will be to show that:

▪ 2°C warming takes our species far outside the climate zone that supports human civilization. Once outside that zone, the earth will stay there for thousands or millions of years.

▪ A 66% chance of species survival is Russian roulette with a three-chambered gun. Only David Koch, whose life expectancy is less than your child’s, wants you to lift it to your head and fire. If you pull the trigger, you take the bullet and he makes more money.

▪ Exxon, the Saudis, the Kochs and their ilk deserve nothing more than they already have, and probably a whole lot less.

This piece is the first in a series — Why there’s no more “carbon budget.” The reasons are many; this is one of them.

The IPCC’s own “carbon budget” has a one-in-three chance of failure

David Spratt at the invaluable Climate Code Red has a brilliant, cogent and clear explanation of the worse-than-Russian-roulette odds in the IPCC’s own data. Spratt (my emphasis; numbers in parentheses refer to his footnotes):

For the last two decades, climate policy-making has focused on 2°C of global warming impacts as being manageable, and a target achievable by binding international treaties and incremental, non-disruptive, adjustments to economic incentives and regulations (1).

But former UK government advisor Professor Sir Robert Watson says the idea of a 2°C target “is largely out of the window”, International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol calls it “a nice Utopia”, and international negotiations chief Christiana Figueres says we need “a miracle”. This is because, in their opinions, emissions will not be reduced sufficiently to keep to the necessary “carbon budget” (2).

The numbers are these: According to the IPCC, from pre-industrial times through the year 2011, man has emitted a total of 515 GtC (gigatons, or billions of tons, of carbon), mainly in the form of CO2, a greenhouse gas. At present, we continuing to emit carbon, at the rate of 10 GtC per year. So by 2015, total emissions will be at least 545 GtC.

Through the magic of faith that 2°C warming is “safe,” the IPCC has come up with a total of 790 GtC “left to burn,” which leaves about 250 GtC left in the “budget.” But that allowable budget comes with a condition — that you accept a 33% chance of failing to keep to that (already magical) warming target.

It’s all a matter of odds. The more carbon we burn, the less likely we are to stay below any warming target. And David Spratt has found a marvelous chart that lays out all of the percentages for the IPCC’s (magical) 2°C warming target.

Here’s that chart (click to open large in a new tab). I’ll walk you through the explanation after you open it.

The myth of "burnable carbon" — for a 90% chance of success, there's no budget left.

The myth of “burnable carbon” — for a 90% chance of staying under 2°C warming, there’s no budget left (source).

To orient yourself, start with the left (Y) axis. This represents cumulative carbon emissions since pre-industrial times. The gray area under the 515+ level represents emissions through 2011 — a part of the “budget” we’ve already spent. Everything above that is future emissions.

(A note about units for the Y-axis — 1 PgC, “petagram” of carbon, is the same amount as 1 GtC, gigaton of carbon. It’s two ways to say the same thing.)

The X-axis shows the odds of success, defined as “staying below 2°C warming,” for a given emissions target.

The blue line shows that as cumulative emissions go down, the odds of “success,” as defined, increase. See where the blue line crosses below 515 GtC? That’s the 90% chance of “success” point. In other words, if you want a less than 1-in-10 chance of failure, stop emitting carbon. Completely. And now.

I’ll deal with the 2°C “unicorn” in a separate piece. 2°C warming really is a unicorn, with a dangerous dragon inside. But for now, let’s pretend, along with the IPCC, that 2°C is totally safe, so long as we don’t go higher.

So what does the graph say? It says, take your choice. If you want just a two-thirds chance of staying below the (mythical) 2°C warming, you can let David Koch and Exxon get richer. If you want a 90% chance? Kill the carbon industry now. 

You read that right. If we want a 90% chance of staying below a pretend-safe 2°C warming, we have to Stop Now. Zero future emissions.

Or don’t. Because it’s always a choice, right? I’m serious. It is always a choice, and that’s the good news. We really do have control.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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13 Responses to “Myth of climate “burnable carbon” – IPCC’s “carbon budget” gives one-in-three chance of failure”

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  3. Ray Del Colle says:

    “Climate change is happening now. Just ask 97% of the top climate scientists & every major National Academy of Science in the world.”

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  5. BillFromDover says:

    How does one fight the conservative talk machine noise, willful and gleeful ignorance, the fossil fuel industries unlimited kabillions to spread misinformation, simple greed, and not to mention attitudes like this that foster these Neanderthals?

    I’ll give us somewhere around 300 to 400 years before we cede this planet to a species that can do a much better job at managing the climate… cockroaches!:

  6. pvequalkt says:

    ” It is always a choice, and that’s the good news. We really do have control.”
    Who is this “we”? humanity? humanity has really no control at all, otherwise “we” would be acting toward your often stated goals.
    The control rests solely in the wallets of the kochs, exxon, chev-tex et al. And because THEY have all the control, ceded by humanity I might add, “we” (humanity) have none. We gave it away. We vote it away in every single election everywhere there are elections.
    Even if “we” yanked our melons outta our sphincters and voted for our planet and our future… well, at this point it’s moot.
    At over 400 ppm, warming and carbon are in a resonant cycle. Even if humans stopped all burning, temps and carbon would still rise.
    Reasons abound, but here it is in a nutshell: Earth can sustain only 1 – 2 billion humans in any sort of first-world conditions. We’re over 7B now and by the time those rich pricks in florida are sandbagging their homes to keep the high tides out, we’ll be about 10B. 10B breathing, eating, crapping and pissing themselves to death. To desalinate seawater for drinking (fresh water will be VEEEERY scarce by then), to run their AC to keep the heat out, to drive their amphibious SUVs (long stretches of roads will be submerged permanently) and so on will require a lot of burning (you think in 25 years voters will get smarter and go against exxon and the kochs and their media and OUR government who serves them?). The factory meat farms will require more hectares of arable land to grow feed and will emit clouds of methane from the oceans of feces produced. We’ll have to get our protein from cows and pigs because the oceans will be pretty much dead by then from acidification and overfishing.
    But there is some good news. By that time a couple of billion of the 10B will have no potable water… none… and will die. All around the world, smaller populations will undergo stresses of food scarcity, temperature extremes and be battered by megastorms.
    And all over the usa, idiots will turn to their imaginary saviors and pray. It won’t work, but that’s what they’ll do.
    I imagine almost all the jews were praying as the “showers” started hissing at Auschwitz too. Didn’t work then either.

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    There are no plans by the US or other major governments to realistically and drastically limit carbon emissions, the poisonous effects of fracking and other petroleum related causes of warming and catastrophic climate change.

    Our only hope is that people become aware that wars of aggression, economic collapse and climate change are interconnected and that all are caused by the rule of the rich. The next and inevitable step, if we want to have a chance at survival, is to end the rule of the rich.

  8. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Long Island will become a swamp, again. This I believe.

  9. Indigo says:

    Yes, although Manhattan has the advantage of not sitting on a sand bar. The Hamptons, however . . .

  10. caphillprof says:

    Not to mention Manhattan, the Hamptons, . . . . . .

  11. Indigo says:

    Billionaires dream of putting a sea wall in place as if Miami sat on hard bedrock like Amsterdam. How they manage not to know that Miami sits on a sand bar on top of porous limestone is one of the 21st century’s deeper mysteries. Catastrophe looms. There’s no doubt about that part, it’s the optimism of the Stop Now thinking that gets to me. How can anyone seriously imagine any part of global society is going to stop carbon consumption before night fall? Not happening.

    So then . . . what? A coping mechanism is needed to address inevitable catastrophe and on
    that front . . . nothing. In North Dakota, every fall the state government publishes practical reminders to have a winter kit in the car in case of blizzard emergency. Here in Florida, we have practical
    reminders to stock up on food, water, and supplies well in advance of hurricane events. In the discussion of global climate change and the potential for catastrophe, we have . . . practical what?

  12. Indigo says:

    I’m with that. To invoke the obvious, Miami Beach is already half underwater during storms and Merritt Island (home of NASA) as well. Yet it all somehow survives and dries back out . . . for now.

  13. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Statistical notions and probability estimates have led to tragedy in many human endeavors. The designers of the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor took into account estimates about the likelihood of an earthquake powerful enough to lead to catastrophe. Although the likelihood of catastrophe was admittedly nonzero, it was considered low enough that it could be practically ignored. Accordingly, the plant was designed without necessary safeguards against the worst case scenarios. They would have increased the costs, of course.

    Do I feel lucky? Not really. But it will take decades to reconfigure the economies of the world for the necessary reductions in emissions and the richest people in the world currently control the governments.
    It seems pretty obvious that the probability of catastrophe is actually quite high.

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