Scientists keep taking the world’s temperature. They report that the fever is getting worse, which is becoming increasingly obvious to the rest of us. They’ve identified the cause — the burning of oil, coal and natural gas. They’ve prescribed the treatment, as if that wasn’t obvious — stop burning the damn stuff. Keep it in the ground. But humanity is reluctant, not to say addicted. When the clouds of greenhouse gases entering the air should be shrinking, they’re growing.
The US is like a filling station. As needed, a tanker truck pulls off the highway onto the forecourt and empties its compartments into the underground storage tanks — regular, premium, super-premium, diesel. In an endless loop, the people fill their cars, SUVs, pickups, commercial vans, RVs, semi tractors, etc. At some point the owner and the customers must come to a collective decision that the next tanker truck will be the last. But they can always order more. And so they do. An industrial country is now built on fossil fuels and can’t last a day without them. Turn off the oil spigot tomorrow and nothing will move. The grocery shelves will be bare in three days.
The way out of this dilemma is to phase the old energy system out while the new one is being built. At this time we can’t build the renewable energy system without using fossil fuels anyway, to manufacture and deliver the components. But it takes a plan. There’s a finite amount of fossil fuel we can still burn without too much damage to a once-hospitable climate, so a large part of it will have to be diverted from present uses and spent on solar panels, wind turbines, and storage batteries.
What is that amount? Fortunately, we know what it is with a workable degree of certainty.
It’s not a budget.
This number, or really set of numbers, is called a “carbon budget.” Could any name be less urgent or less inspiring? Budgets are noble and necessary. A budget has been called a moral document. But the word reeks of boring bureaucratic detail. Besides, in any ongoing endeavor there’s always next year’s budget. What we need is the last budget.
This final tank of fossil fuels is a reservoir, a common pool from which everyone is entitled to their necessary share until the transition is complete, it’s gone, and we no longer need it. But first precedence for drawing from this pool goes to building the replacement energy system. A plan must be made for allocating the rest to other essential uses and banning nonessential uses.
This goes against our free enterprise economy, but so be it. If this be socialism, so be it. The economy of endless growth got us into this mess by overexploiting the limited endowment of nature. The present system, if allowed to continue, may prove incompatible with the survival of complex civilization and of a large part of the human population.
The contents of this last hydrocarbon pool cannot be defined directly as such-and-such a combination of oil, coal and gas; we don’t know what that is in advance. It is defined by the maximum quantity of carbon-dioxide that will rise from the surface of the pool as it burns. That amount is 1300 Gigatons of CO2 (billions of tons of carbon-dioxide).
For the details, I refer you to the Emissions Gap Report 2019 of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) where I found the numbers, and to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) where I found more numbers.
The IPCC gives us a ceiling of 2° Centigrade (3.6°F) of global warming that we can safely endure. Beyond that we would trigger tipping points, changes we could no longer control no matter how hard we clamped down on fossil fuels, including releases of much more CO2 and methane from burning forests and thawing Arctic permafrost.
By 2015 conviction had grown that 2°C wasn’t really safe. The ceiling should be 1.5°C (2.7°F). This additional limit was written into the Paris climate accord of that year, but as aspirational more than realistic.
In October 2018, the IPCC released a report on “Global Warming of 1.5°C.” It gave two carbon budgets for staying under 1.5°C — 580 GtCO2 for a 50% probability of success or 420 GtCO2 for a 66% probability. But at the rate annual emissions are going, we’re on track to empty either of those hydrocarbon pools by 2030. There is not a sign that the world will muster the will to keep the lid on at 1.5°C.
We can still hope that 2° is good enough, and that gives us a lot more room. The 2019 UNEP report gives us a 66% chance of staying under the 2° cap if we limit emissions to the broad range of 900–1300 GtCO2. I chose the high end because, let’s face it, we’re not getting the job done. We might have a chance with 1300.
When do we start leaving it in the ground?
Droughts and floods, fires and firenadoes like no one’s seen before, derecho winds that flattened the Plains like horizontal tornadoes, supercharged hurricanes — so far it’s been nothing we couldn’t handle, sort of, but the progression is clear. The Amazon rainforest is disappearing and yielding up its carbon to the atmosphere. Heat could soon make desert regions like the Near East and the American Southwest uninhabitable. Without mountain glaciers and snowmelt to feed rivers a steady flow of water in the warm season, rainfall will wash downstream in sudden floods, then leave the rivers dry. Even the US may learn what famine is.
There are plenty of plans out there with names like the Green New Deal and Green Industrial Revolution. Renewable electricity in the form of wind and solar power is catching up because it’s now cheaper than coal and, much of the time, natural gas. But mostly renewable energy is being added on to the old fossil system, not replacing it.
Let’s rise up and lead our so-called leaders with the demand to draw that last tankful and close the filling station.
Henry Robertson is an environmental lawyer and activist in St. Louis.