Every bit of CO2 we release is one step closer to using up our carbon budget.
Click on the animate button (or use the slider) to see how we have used up our carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.
Climate change is the result of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane from human activities. The amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere determines how much of the incoming solar radiation is trapped as heat. Since CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas and very long lived in the atmosphere, there’s a good correlation between the total amount of human CO2 emissions and the amount of warming that the earth will experience. This leads to the concept of a carbon budget.
For every ton of CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere about half a ton becomes part of the atmosphere for the long term, assuming there’s no massive new program to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. And there’s a direct correlation between the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and the earth’s temperature. Scientists tend to look at milestones of 2°C or 1.5°C when thinking about potential future warming. There is some uncertainty, but the total amount of human CO2 emissions that will lead to a 1.5°C warming from pre-industrial levels is around 2200 billion metric tonnes of CO2 plus or minus a few hundred billion tons (or 460 billion metric tonnes from 2020). This unit is also written as GtCO2 or gigatonnes of CO2. The values for the budget for 2°C warming are 1310 GtCO2 from 2020 or 2993 GtCO2 from pre-industrial levels.
Shown below is a graph from the Carbon Brief that shows the uncertainty in estimates for the remaining carbon budget (from 2018) before having a 50% chance of exceeding 1.5°C warming. As you can see there’s a fairly large range.
Update: The article’s author Zeke Hausfather pointed me to an updated article with newer IPCC estimates for the carbon budget of these two warming milestones. I have updated the code to account for these two new values.
1.5°C (2.7°F) doesn’t sound like alot, but there are some pretty serious potential consequences that we’ll be dealing with. These include increasing the amount or frequency of the following:
This NASA article has much more info on the specific issues related to this temperature rise. Ideally we’d keep warming to under 1.5°C but it looks likely that we may exceed 2°C unless we take fairly dramatic action to reduce or CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and use cleaner/lower-carbon sources of energy, like renewables and nuclear power.
From 1750 to 2020, humans have emitted approximately 1683 GtCO2. The IPCC estimates that 460 GtCO2 would put us at 1.5°C warming and 1310 GtCO2 would put us at 2°C warming. These values give us an estimated total carbon budget of 2143 GtCO2 for 1.5°C and 2993 GtCO2 for 2°C warming.
You can really see how we are getting close to using up all of our 1.5°C carbon budget and the speed at which we are using it up, especially in the last few decades.
Sources and Tools:
CO2 emissions are the primary contributor to our current ‘climate crisis’. Because of buildup of heat-trapping nature of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, temperatures are rising and weather and precipitation patterns are changing. Changes in climate will have profound impacts on both natural systems and our human landscapes.
Significant emissions of CO2 really started in the industrial revolution. This is when humans really started using significant quantities of non-renewable energy sources, mainly fossil fuels such as coal and later natural gas and oil. The increase in the burning of hydrocarbon energy sources for powering factories and transportation lead to growing CO2 emissions. The following graph shows the annual emissions of CO2 since 1750, before the start of the industrial revolution. In this period of 269 years, humans have emitted 1600 billion tonnes of CO2 (1600 gigatonnes). One incredible fact is that due to rapid growth in population and energy use per capita over time, we are emitting more and more CO2 each year and that humans have emitted as much in the last 28 years than in the 240 years prior to that.
The global median age is around 30 years old (i.e. half the people on earth were born after 1989). This means that more than half of the earth’s population has seen the global cumulative CO2 emissions double in their lifetime. Also very striking is that in my children’s lifetimes (around a decade), humanity has added nearly 1/5 of all human produced CO2 ever to the atmosphere.
Notes: Emissions are in units of gigatonnes of CO2. To convert to gigatons of carbon, another common unit of measuring carbon emissions, divide by 3.666.
Data source and Tools