Accounting for Global Warming

What’s our carbon budget? The carbon budget is the amount of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions scientists estimate our atmosphere can take before we reach 1.5 degrees celsius of global warming.
  • The carbon budget is the amount of CO₂ we can emit while remaining under 1.5℃ of warming.
  • We’re reeeeeeally close to maxing out our carbon account.
  • There are a lot of things we can do to keep emissions below the limit and stay underbudget.
the carbon budget is an estimation of how much CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions our atmosphere can handle before we reach 1.5 degrees of global warming
Our thin atmosphere, the only thing between us and the vacuum of space.

Gazing up from the Earth, the sky looks like limitless blue. But looking down from space, you can see just how thin our atmosphere really is. Currently, we are pumping greenhouse gases into that thin layer of atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat and causing global warming. So far, nothing you didn’t already know.

But exactly how much greenhouse gas can we actually emit?

Just how much CO₂ can that thin layer of air take before we pass the tipping point and ignite a climate catastrophe?

Several groups of scientists have tried to figure this out and determine what exactly is our atmosphere’s carbon budget. The carbon budget is just a simplified way to determine how much more we can pollute the air before really bad stuff happens. And just like any budget, the amount we can spend (emissions) depends on the price we’re ultimately willing to pay (consequences of global warming).

It’s widely acknowledged that we’re too late to avoid global warming now, the climate is warming and will continue to get hotter. But just how much hotter is still within our control. If we can keep global warming under 1.5℃, Earth will become harder to live on, but we will avoid the worst effects of global warming. However, if we allow the atmosphere to warm 2℃, we will lose entire nations.

Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, gave an impassioned and moving speech at COP26 in Glasgow
Mia Mottley gave a moving speech at COP26

So, with THAT in mind, let’s set our budget at 1.5℃.

Everyone cool with 1.5? Cool.

Then scientists have the hard job of figuring out how much CO₂ we can emit until the temperature rises by 1.5℃. Different groups of researchers have arrived at widely different numbers. But that makes sense, these are extremely difficult calculations to make: you have to come up with accurate numbers for how much warming correlates with CO₂ concentrations, aggregated emissions data from the entire world, factor in negative emissions from natural ecosystems, while keeping in mind other types of pollution and their warming effects, yadda yadda yadda.

count down clock showing how much time we have left until we max out our carbon budget and exceed 1.5 degrees of global warming.
The MCC has this nifty doomsday countdown to make the carbon budget fun and easy to understand (taken Dec 11, 2021. That means when you read this we’re closer to doom that what you see above :)

But, let’s use the estimate from MCC, using data from the recent IPCC Report (that’s the report created by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to get a snapshot of climate research and solutions). They estimate we can emit a bit less than 400 more gigatons of CO₂ before we surpass 1.5℃.

Wow, 400 gigatons? Sounds like a lot! *turns on all lights in the house💡💡💡💡💡💡💡*

the carbon budget is the estimated amount of greenhouse gas emissions our atmosphere can take before we reach 1.5 degrees celsius of global warming.
Our estimated carbon budget, from Standford University

But that’s less than 8% of our total budget. Meaning we’ve already emitted over 92% of our Carbon Budget. And at our current rate of global emissions we’ll exceed that budget in less than 8 years.

Oh, sh —

*Turns off all lights and becomes Amish 🕯*

This is why we keep hearing that we have to decarbonize our economies within the next few years and rapidly scale up solutions now. The US and EU have goals of being carbon-neutral by 2050, which — if my math is right — is about 20 years too late.

What can we do to stay within our Carbon Budget?

Government needs to step it up and take drastic action like:

  • implementing a Green New Deal
  • establishing a Civilian Climate Corps
  • funding massive-scale nature restoration projects
  • investing in geothermal, wind, hydrogen, water, and solar energy
  • strictly regulating emissions from transport and industry
  • funding research and development for decarbonization solutions
  • ending fossil fuel subsidies (how is this still a thing?!)
  • giving developing nations the funding they need to decarbonize their economies
  • And much more…

The US is still the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the wealthiest country in the history of the world. The Biden Administration can do so much to curb our emissions here at home, which can help buy the rest of the world time to develop their solutions. A lot of people may claim that’ll harm our economy, but many countries have already been able to reduce their emissions while growing their economies, and large-scale government projects like this tend to boost economic growth and be a smart investment in the long run.

Businesses large and small must also do their Corporate Social Responsibilities by eliminating emissions anywhere possible, and offsetting the emissions they can’t avoid. It can be helpful to pressure businesses on social media to push them to make the necessary changes if they won’t change on their own. And when you have the choice, choose to pratronize businesses that make positive choices for the planet.

Is there any way we can stretch our budget?

Yes, just like with any budget, we can help stretch the budget with negative emissions! Negative emissions create carbon sinks that draw CO₂ out of the atmosphere and sequester it in living organisms, the water, or underground.

So far, the ocean has been our largest carbon sink (without the sea’s CO₂ absorbing powers, we would have already exceeded our budget). But, at this point the ocean can’t really take much more. When CO₂ gets absorbed into water it becomes carbonic acid, which is why ocean acidification is a growing problem.

So what other carbon sinks can we bolster to create negative emissions to help us gain precious time before we max-out our carbon budget?

Planting trees, of course! 🌲🌱🌳🌴

Forest regeneration has the greatest potential for absorbing CO₂, which is why The Carbon Offset Company is focused on reviving healthy ecosystems that can sequester carbon indefinitely.

But there are so many other nature-based solutions beyond forest regeneration: Coastal ecosystem restoration, wetlands restoration, urban nature regeneration, and farmland reclamation are also important ways to generate negative emissions that can stretch our carbon budget.

Check out this handy infographic to learn more about nature-based solutions.

Want to balance your carbon budget by creating negative emissions through nature-based solutions? Offset your emissions by supporting projects, like planting forests in Senegal and mangrove forests in Mozambique, that help local ecosystems and communities thrive.



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