Carbon Emissions Countdown – The Failure

Greenhouse gases are water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and also include carbon dioxide (CO2). There is a correlation between the greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity and the average increase in global temperature from pre-industrial times. This correlation is based on the fact that greenhouse gases cause global warming. Therefore adding more greenhouse gases to those already polluting the atmosphere continues to increase the average global temperature and global warming.

Image of carbon pollution coming out of chimneys Carbon pollution coming out of chimneys – the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce emissions has failed


The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report set out the results of a scientific calculation of the amount of carbon dioxide pollution that humanity could release into the atmosphere, while limiting the increase in warming since preindustrial time (around the year 1850). The goals were set at well below 2°C, with efforts to limit warming further to 1.5°C. This volume of additional ‘allowed’ pollution was euphemistically called the “carbon budget.”

The IPCC.s report took stock of the most recent studies on the carbon budget and concluded that if we continue business as usual we will use up this estimated carbon budget by 2030. The first point that comes to mind is that this approach completely ignores the other greenhouse gases, the most important of which for this purpose, being methane mainly emitted by livestock.

The 2015 International Paris Agreement on carbon emissions set a target to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. This agreement however never defined what, exactly, this meant. It could be interpreted either as aiming for 1.5°C warming with a 50% chance of staying below it, or as aiming for “well below” 1.5°C with a 66% chance of avoiding more than 1.5°C warming. It is ambiguous as to whether this refers to changes in global air temperature or a blend of air temperature and ocean surface temperature.

The agreement also conspicuously disregarded pollution coming from the entire airline and shipping industries as well as emissions by the world’s military forces and the space industry. The Paris agreement was hailed as a great show of unity between countries. In fact it was that – all the countries agreed and then all proceeded not to do anything.

Image of forest fires in Australia - forest fires are increasing dramatically - we are losing our natural carbon sinks Forest fires in Australia – forest fires are increasing dramatically – we are losing our natural carbon sinks


The IPCC report shows that In order to have a 50% chance of limiting the warming increase to 1.5°C, human activity could release another 770 Gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (GtCO2) into the air. Now in order for the odds of success to be increased from 50% to 66% the available budget drops to 570 GtCO2.

Even if countries had honoured their Paris pledges for emissions reductions, which they did not, we would anyway exhaust the carbon budget, that would give us a 66% chance of success of limiting warming to 1.5°C, by 2030. Moreover in the overly optimistic scenario in which current levels of carbon dioxide emissions are not reduced but are kept constant, we would still exhaust the CO2 budget by 2030 or earlier.

We should also bear in mind that we are in 2020 and since the 2015 Paris ‘so called’ agreement the CO2 emission have not only not decreased, but they have actually increased year on year. At the end of 2015 the average global temperature had already reached 1°C above preindustrial times. At the end of 2019 we have closed in on a 1.5°C increase. The Paris Agreement targets are obsolete.

This notwithstanding, the vast majority of governments are implicitly willing to allow a temperature increase of 2°C or more in flagrant disregard of the IPCC report. This would allow the various polluting industries to regurgitate at least another 1690 Gt of toxic emissions into our air giving us a 50% chance of success. On the other hand we could limit additional emissions to 1320 Gt if we preferred our chances of success to be higher, such as 66%. In the overly optimistic scenario of current levels of CO2 emissions being held constant, this latter budget would be exhausted by 2050. It does not take a genius to see that this is just a strategy to kick the can down the road so as not to be forced to take any meaningful actions right now and continue behaving as if there was no tomorrow.

This is like firemen calmly taking time to discuss what quantity of water to throw at the flames of a burning house in order to have a 50 per cent or 66 per cent chance of saving the people inside, then going home while the house continues to burn.

These convoluted and ambiguous targets that have an inbuilt failure expectation of 34% or even 50% are not targets at all. Whilst being adequate for a scientific study giving the parameters within which the findings are true and to what extent, they are highly inadequate as a policy objective. One would have expected policymakers to have interpreted the findings of the IPCC study, understood the limitations and risks and set very ambitious annual targets to get us out of this existential trap by 2030.

To the contrary, what we have is a blatant display of paralysis and denial of the obvious by policymakers. It can be seen to be also delusional when you consider that we are already in the middle of an existential crisis – the mass extinction of life on Earth. I would go as far as to say that policymakers who think that the phrasing, the timing and the level of these targets is acceptable, should not be allowed to take any decisions on our behalf.

In the words of Greta Thunberg while addressing the European Parliament representatives “This is surrender”. In my opinion this is also a betrayal of trust of the highest order. Wherever you live in the world please make this known to your local and national representatives.

Other related articles:

CO2 Emissions Countdown (2) – The Reality

Climate Change is Ecocide


This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 13 June 2020