24 May 2011

Commission's call for carbon budget beyond political belief

David Spratt

First published in Crikey, 23 May 2011

The Critical Decade report released today by the Climate Commission calls for a "fresh approach" to setting emission reduction targets, in particular by using a global "carbon budget".

But what does that mean for Australia? The answer, grounded in peer-reviewed science, is beyond political belief.

The "carbon budget" approach was first outlined in early 2009, and described in "Humanity's carbon budget set at one trillion tonnes" and "How The '2 Degrees Celsius Target' Can Be Reached".

Two peer-reviewed articles asked the question: how many more tonnes of carbon can humans pour into the air until 2050 before a 2-degree temperature increase is the result? A commentary by both sets of authors was published in "Nature" as "The exit strategy".

Now 2-degrees is not a good target. As Crikey outlined in January, NASA climate director James Hansen concludes that at the current temperature rise of just under 1°C, no "cushion" is left to avoid dangerous climate change, and that the Australian government target goals "… of limiting human-made warming to 2°C and carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million are prescriptions for disaster".

Indeed, Climate Commission member and author of the "Critical Decade" report, Will Steffen, is a co-author of perhaps the most significant climate science paper of 2009, "A safe operating space for humanity" which found a safe boundary for many of the earth’s key systems would be no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. But that is another story.

So what does a carbon budget approach mean for Australia? In short, we are in deep carbon deficit heading towards bankruptcy, and at the present rate of emissions, Australia would run out of its carbon budget to 2050 within 5 years. Here’s how it works:
  • The research found that to have a three in four chance of staying below 2 degrees of warming, the total emissions available between 2000 and 2050 would be about 250 billion tonnes of carbon. But in the first nine years, 60 billion tonnes had already been omitted, so from 2009 on the budget was 190 billion tonnes.
  • With a very conservative 7 billion people on the planet over that period, and starting with the proposition that each person has an equal right to carbon emissions, each person can emit about 27 tonnes each, over the period 2009-2050. (Or do we reckon that we have some inherent right to pour more carbon dioxide into the air that the billions in the developing world who lack the infrastructure and standard of living that our historically high emissions have bought us?)
  • But Australia’s annual emissions average more than six tonnes per head a year. Divide 27 by 6, and the answer is 4.5. Less than five years. That is how long a carbon budget would last for Australia at our current rates of greenhouse gas pollution. The results for a number of nations are shown in the graph, based on a presentation by Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute and climate advisor the EU and the German Chancellor.

At a global scale, a quick flick of the calculator will find that if global emissions keep growing at the present rate of 3.5% a year, then the global carbon budget for 2 degrees runs out in 2021. That is, after that time, emissions would need to drop to zero immediately to have a 75% chance of not passing 2 degrees. If global emissions reduce 2% a year from now (something not even vaguely on the table), the carbon budget to 2050 will still run out in 2030 for 2 degrees. This is the stark science with which the political elite wish to negotiate, at our collective peril.

The alternative is to head towards 3 or 4 degrees of warming, which is where present international commitments are taking us, and a planet fit to support less than a billion people by 2100.

The Climate Commission has bravely put the science of a global carbon budget on the table. It now needs to explain the implications for Australia. It is not a 5% reduction by 2020 as the major parties advocate. It is getting to zero emissions in 10 years. That’s the science.

It puts a lie to the view recently expressed by Climate Commission chair Tim Flannery that: "If all major emitters adopt a similar level of effort to our 5% reduction target in 2020 (or better) and continue to decarbonise thereafter, we’ll cap the temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees later this century ..."

The commission will easily be caught between the science and politics of climate change. It’s purpose can be best fulfilled by sticking to explaining the science, without political fear or favour.


  1. Richard LaverackMay 30, 2011 at 3:49 AM

    As pointed as ever David, it is a pleasure to be able to read such common sense on the other side of the world. Here in Spain there are mass demonstrations happening with hundreds of thousands out on the streets. I have some film clips on my Facebook page, but I doubt it would even rate a mention in Australia.

    The reason I left Australia was the head in sand approach taken by the major parties, and the inability for the Greens to have the press take them seriously. But with Flannery caught between his Panasonic job and the truth I wonder what is the point of the commission ?

    If the Australian public is to be fed crap as truth, and official U.N. bodies only update their information every 7 years we will be reliant on data that is now 9 years old until the year 2014 at least.

    Keep going David.

    Richard Laverack

  2. Thanks for this very helpful post. Can I ask what I realise is actually quite a complex question in search of an overview answer?

    Here is my question: does the 250 billion tonnes of carbon budgeted between 2000 and 2050 have natural carbon sinks built into it? That is, does the atmosphere require significantly less than 250 billion tonnes of carbon in order to reach a CO2 concentration that would exceed a 25% chance of exceeding 2ÂșC?

    I find the carbon budget approach very compelling and attractive for its (relative) simplicity when trying to communicate it, but have not been able to confirm whether natural sinks are already included in the calculations or not.

  3. The well truth statement::

    How many of you have had of alternative engines that can runs anything form alcohol to garbage of waters, calibrators magnetic engines that practically runs forever, you don’t know about them because if they are to become to use, they will put oil companies out of business, the concept of informal converted convention engines have been revolved absolutely for fifty years, but because of the oil cartels and corrupt governments regulations, the world is forced to use gasoline for over 100 years. Big businesses are primarily responsible for polluting the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe, they have no care for the world they destroy, only for the money making in the process. How many oil bills can we endow?. Millions of millions of gallants of oils are now destroying evolutions and many forms of life and amongst this; is plants that supports 60- 90% of marine ecosystem that forms the oxygen and the basic of food supply.

    The planet earth is dying.

    Anywhere on earth you find the toxic waste that reluctantly meant to pollute the earth. Basically if you control the legislature, you control the law. The law says no company makes a 25 thousand dollars a day, the companies are making 100 millions of thousand dollars a day by dumping the illegal toxic waste in our ocean and this is only good business to continue doing. They influence the media so as to control our minds, they make crimes to speak out ourselves, to do so we conquer the conspiracy that makes them laugh, we are angry because we are chemically and genetically damaged and we don’t even realise.
    Unfortunately this is affecting our children. We go to our different works everyday and right below our noses exhausts accumulate poisonous smoke that kills us slowly. Even if we don’t see, how will you feel if you are told that one day you wouldn’t see 50 years upfront and be encouraged to drink purified bottled water?

    The planet earth is dying.

    The whole world; worldwide
    The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general, The term originally denoted a zone of the earth between two lines of latitude, then any region of the earth, and later, a region considered with reference to its atmospheric conditions.
    The act or instance of making or becoming different.

    In general terms;
    Climate change is long-term, significant change in the climate of an area or of the earth, usually seen as resulting from human activity.
    Global warming is the gradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth's atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants.

    Special note:
    My name is Peter Maphatsoe MM and this is official statement to all earth inhabitants especially Africans, in fact Lesotho; which is located in southern hemisphere, where I was born and grew up experiencing seasonal months; summer, autumn, winter and spring in two decades back. Now is 2011 and the reality of climate change is threatening and I hate to visualize the fact that in 50 years to come, we won’t have seasonal months and then later; the world shall freezes so as to proof scientific big bang enquiry.

  4. I just read this post and I have a question. The graph shows that the average percapita emissions are around 20 tonnes yet the calculations of the years remaining says 6 tonnes. Is there a reason for this difference? Clearly I am missing something.

  5. To comment above: The graph is in carbon dioxide, whereas the discussion is in carbon only.
    1 ton carbon = 3.67 tonnes carbon dioxide. Sorry for the confusion. David