Climate Math for a Harsh New Age: The Carbon Budget (or how I lost 35 lbs.)

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In a moment – how I lost 35 pounds (16 kilos, for those outside the US). But first, some brutal climate math.

The Climate Science is in. The recent congressionally mandated government report, the UN Emissions Gap Report, and the last IPCC report make the case. Beyond that, the weather is in. With the three hottest years ever, record heat waves, terrible wildfires, the strongest storms ever, and the accelerating melting of Greenland and Antarctic Ice, it’s pretty clear that it’s pretty bad.

Ocean acidification. Species dying. Spreading tropical pests and diseases. Fires and floods. It may not be the end of days, but it sure looks like the Book of Revelations. We live today in the future predicted by climate scientists years ago.

But I come not to talk about Climate Science. I come to talk about Climate Math.

The Climate Math is pretty straightforward. Since we know about how much CO2 warms the atmosphere (both directly and indirectly, like by increasing water vapor saturations), and we know how much warming has already happened, we know how much more CO2 we can emit before we blow past the Paris Climate Accord targets – 1.5C and 2C of warming. Friendly note: even a 1.5 world is pretty awful, and a 3C world is REALLY awful.

The Paris targets give us a BUDGET to work with. Just like any budget, one can only spend so much before becoming overdrawn. Since we have to assess future climates statistically, the carbon budget is actually a set of probabilities associated with rates of emission and how much warming we get from adding greenhouse gases to the air (called the Climate Sensitivity).

Many have written about the carbon budget, and better than I. If you want details, you can read these blogs and papers by Glen Peters, Oliver Geden, Ken Caldeira, and the UN.

The carbon budget news is pretty bad. Here's the highlights. If our current rate of emissions stays flat:

  • We can emit for only 5 more years (!) to have a 2/3 chance of reaching 1.5C. Five.
  • We can emit for only 12 more years to have a 50% chance of stopping at 1.5C
  • We can emit for roughly 20 years to have a 50% chance of stopping at 2 C
  • To get on track for a 2C world, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every year by about 15 billion tons in 12 years’ time. That’s more that all emissions from all worldwide coal.
  • To get on track for a 1.5C world, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every year by about 20 billion tons. That’s twice the weight of all oil and gas shipped in the world every year, or about 100 times the volume that Royal Dutch Shell refines and sells every year.

Yikes.

Whether this makes you optimistic or pessimistic, the WORK looks the same. Moping or flapping like wet hens won’t reduce emissions. Action will. Which takes me to my weight-loss story.

I really did lose 35 pounds in about 4 months. It wasn’t always fun. But I did it. I started by modifying my diet some (less carbs and sweets, more fruit) and going to the gym 3 times a week (moderate cardio). Over the course of three months, I lost 5 pounds.

I felt better, and was pleased with myself. Then I went on vacation and gained it all back in 4 days.

I decided I needed to do more. I reset the clock and started again. This time, I cut out sweets 100%. I stopped eating pasta, and decreased carbs a lot. I hit the gym 5 times a week – vigorous cardio and weight training. I drank tons of water. I ate less, and I was hungry. I stayed hungry.

In three weeks, I didn’t want sweets and was not as bothered by my occasional hunger. I slept better. My acid reflux went away. And, in three months, I had lost 25 pounds.

Diet and exercise. Who knew?

The punchline is I needed to do more, so I did. Same with the climate budget, we gotta do more. We must.

We need to invest in innovative approaches. We try new things. We should triple our R&D investments in clean tech across the board.

We need new policies that take new approaches and have greater ambition. We should support new business models, and create new markets that stimulate private investment. We need to spend more money – a recent study at Stanford showed just how much, and where! In particular, we need to augment the current investments in renewables and EV’s with additional investments in energy efficiency, geothermal, nuclear, and carbon capture.

We also need to go beyond reducing emissions, and start removing them. After all, what drives the climate is the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If we want to fix the mess we made, we need to remove that carbon as well.

We must take more shots on net if we want to score. "All of the above" worked for me in weight loss, and will work for the climate best as well.

My future blogs will discuss aspects of the solution set. How might we start thinking about the work we share. How to talk about the challenge in ways that help separate sense from non-sense and spur action. How to create new industries that bring growth and wealth while we solve the problems at hand. For now, though, I leave you with one thought only:

If you embrace climate science, then embrace the climate math.


Dr. Julio Friedmann is the CEO of Carbon Wrangler, LLC, and a Distinguished Associate at the Energy Futures Initiative, where he leads a team on large-scale carbon management and deep decarbonization.

He recently served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy. He has also held positions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, including Senior Advisor for Energy Innovation and Chief Energy Technologist. Follow Julio on Twitter @CarbonWrangler.