Carbon budget

fumee-usineIf you’ve fired up the old desktop and consulted the Internets lately, you already know that our climate is in bad shape. The consensus among scientists is that global warming is real, caused by human activities, and potentially disastrous to our continued survival as a species. Many of us (me) would rather burrow our heads into the metaphorical sand and watch reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race than read another headline about how doomed we all are – and who can blame us? But if you read beyond the headlines, what you’ll discover is that there are very real solutions to this seemingly insurmountable problem – the only thing we have to do is put those solutions in place. Easy, right?

Let’s Talk About A Carbon Budget

Um excuse me, but just what exactly is a carbon budget? It sounds awful – neither of those two words are fun. But in fact, it’s a very important concept that will be key to our success at fighting climate change. In order to understand what a carbon budget is, you need to understand that cumulative emissions matter. It’s not just a question of slowing down how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, it’s a question of stopping emissions entirely. Climate change 101: when carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) are released into the atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat, warming the Earth. Because the gases don’t disappear over time, it doesn’t matter where or when they’re released, they will eventually cause the same amount of warming. Specifically, every trillion tonnes of CO2 emitted will cause about 0.5° C of warming. I should point out here that not all greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity – there’s a natural carbon cycle that’s always at play, and many natural processes that cause the emission of carbon dioxide. However, the prevailing scientific view at this time is that human activity is accelerating the greenhouse effect due to the massive amount of greenhouses gases that are created by human industry (like the burning of coal and oil). At a certain point, we won’t be able to put any more carbon dioxide into the sky – our emissions will need to reach zero. This means that if we want to avoid the 1.5°C of warming that scientists say is the only way to keep our climate liveable, there’s a finite amount of CO2 that we can emit into the atmosphere. That finite amount of carbon is called the carbon budget.

Why Do I Care?

You absolutely care! Because Canada’s current climate strategy doesn’t include a carbon budget, and it should! Canada’s current climate plan is based on annual emissions targets. We set a goal to reduce our emissions by a given percentage of a previous year. For example, Canada’s target for 2030 is to reduce emissions by 30% of 2005 levels. Both strategies aim to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we produce, but science says that a carbon budget will be far more effective at helping us avoid the worst outcomes of climate change.

The first big problem with annual emissions targets is that this plan will inevitably lead to more CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Remember that cumulative emissions matter, so more CO2 = more warming = more catastrophe. Another issue is that emissions targets don’t tend to account for the fact that many countries the world over are not in a position to rapidly decarbonize, or that some countries are already guilty of carbon-loading the atmosphere more than others. While some folks might think it unfair that Canada should further tighten the carbon-belt in order to allow developing countries to play catch up, it’s the only strategy that makes sense. At the moment, Canada ranks 15 out of 17 countries for greenhouse gas emissions per capita (that’s a D grade by the way) because we are using far more than our fair share of the carbon budget. Our atmosphere and climate are shared, so what Canadians do will have impact elsewhere, and what happens in other countries will eventually impact Canadians, for better or for worse. Some political leaders and policy-makers have argued that this means that it doesn’t matter what we do! Even if we reduce our emissions to zero, other countries will still be emitting tonnes and tonnes, so we might as well just do whatever we want! This non-solution is counterproductive at best – using a carbon budget in our climate change plans will allow Canada to ethically account not only for our historical responsibility when it comes to carbon emissions, but to allow space for developing countries to upgrade their infrastructure and prepare for what’s coming.

Another benefit of using a carbon budget in policy is that politicians are used to working with budgets. We get a new one every year, right? You might be thinking “But politicians are bad at everything, including budgets! We’re doomed!” Calm down. Politicians have far more experience working with budgets than with targets. And while it might seem like only a semantic difference, the way in which progress is monitored and oversight is done is quite different. The bureaucratic infrastructure needed to use a carbon budget in our climate policy is already in place – how convenient!

What’s Next?

Hopefully by now we can all agree on the following:
1.    Climate change is happening and we need to take steps to prevent the worst outcomes.
2.    Cumulative emissions matter – we only have a finite amount of greenhouse gas emissions left to avoid 1.5° C of warming.
3.    Using a carbon budget makes more sense and will lead to better outcomes that using annual emissions targets. It’s smarter, more ethical, and could even be easier to do.

Happily, solutions are in the works. There are already lots of dedicated activists who are digging into the task of finding better ways to do things – C40 Cities is an organization connecting 96 of the world’s largest cities who are taking bold action against climate change. They’ve put together a blueprint called Deadline 2020, which provides a tangible guide on how cities can implement a climate budget at the municipal level. So what’s left does for us concerned citizens who like to hug trees but are neither policy-makers nor scientists nor activists? What do we do with all these awesome facts? Remember that it’s not impossible for citizens to create change in government – the government is meant to represent the will of the people, and it’s incumbent on our elected leaders to protect the health and well-being of their citizens. It’s up to us to put pressure on our representatives to implement policy that reflects what we actually want and need. But they’ll only know what we actually want and need if we speak up !

Zoë Robertson

Carbon budget
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