Last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reaffirmed the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is primarily caused by human use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for our energy needs.
For the first time, however, the IPCC stated an upper limit on total greenhouse-gas emissions, a global “carbon budget” to keep temperature increase below 2 ° C—the aspirational target for international negotiations and considered the threshold for “dangerous” climate change.
The scientists of the IPCC reckon that we have already burned through more than half of our total carbon budget going back to the mid-19th century. Humanity’s remaining carbon budget is about 921 billion tonnes (921 gigatonnes, or Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2). That’s about 30 years of fossil-fuel emissions worldwide. It would provide a 66-percent chance of staying below 2 ° C; if we lower the odds to those of a coin toss (50 percent), we can emit up to 1,068 Gt of CO2.
What does this mean for B.C.?
A carbon budget would be a wake-up call for a province dreaming of fossil-fuel riches, including development of a liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) export industry. Political commitments on climate action, to the extent they exist, are usually pitched in terms of targets and time lines. B.C., for example, has a legislated target of 33 percent below 2007 levels by 2020.
B.C.’s fair share of this global carbon budget would be determined by international negotiations. If the budget were allocated equally—based on share of the world’s population—B.C.’s carbon budget would be 0.6 Gt (for the 66-percent chance above). This amounts to a mere decade of emissions at current levels.
B.C. would have more room to work with if we were allocated a carbon budget in line with our share of GDP. This would mean a more comfortable 2.8 Gt, some 45 years of emissions at current levels. But such a budget is hard to square with the massive emissions profile of LNG.
The higher number is wishful thinking anyway. International negotiations have centred on “historical emissions”: rich countries have burned fossil fuels for more than a century with no thought to climate change, so they should be required to make disproportionate emission reductions.
Even assuming B.C. secures a carbon budget at the high end, we still have a big problem: B.C.’s reserves of coal and natural gas are way larger than any plausible carbon budget. Natural-gas reserves are equivalent to 55 Gt if combusted into CO2. B.C.’s coal reserves represent another 40 Gt if combusted. Together, that fuel, safely sequestered belowground, is almost three years’ worth of worldwide emissions.
This implies that the vast majority of those reserves need to stay in the ground. Plans for an LNG export industry need to be seriously rethought in light of carbon budgeting.
Although most of the emissions from B.C.’s fossil fuels are exported—other countries combust the fuel and would count the emissions as part of their carbon inventory—B.C. still has to count the emissions from extracting and processing fossil fuels. These domestic emissions could come down if B.C. got serious about making the “cleanest LNG in the world”.
But in a carbon-constrained world, other countries will also have to live within their own carbon budgets. They, too, will have to cut back on fossil fuels in favour of renewables.
Ongoing extreme weather, oil spills, and train wrecks suggest it is only a matter of time before the world gets serious about carbon budgets. B.C.’s LNG plans double down on the old fossil-fuel economy and could come to represent tens of billions of dollars in stranded assets.
A carbon budget tells us B.C. must invest heavily in precisely the opposite: green infrastructure, such as public transit, high-speed rail, and zero-waste facilities. Funded by an expanded carbon tax, climate action is also a superior jobs policy to LNG.
The challenge of every jurisdiction is to figure out how to live within a carbon budget while providing the “good life” for all. Future generations will wonder why it took us so long to get started.
Marc Lee is a senior economist in the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and is the codirector of the Climate Justice Project. His latest study, Canada’s Carbon Liabilities: The Implications of Stranded Fossil Fuel Assets for Financial Markets and Pension Funds (with Brock Ellis), is available at www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/canadas-carbon-liabilities.