do the math

3 simple numbers & the carbon bubble

Ever heard of the 3 simple numbers, Bill McKibben (initiator of the 350.org movement) mentioned in the Rolling Stone Magazine in 2012?

The first of Bill’s numbers is: 2°C.

On the last day of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen 2009 the world political leaders have agreed “that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celcius”

In order to achieve the 2°-target, the Potsdam Institute figured out, that we must not release more than 886 Gt CO2 into the atmosphere in the first half of the century. By 2011 we have already emitted 321 Gt (which resulted in a 0.8°C temperature rise since the beginning of the industrial age).

Hence, for the remaining 40 years (2011-2050), the global carbon budget (and thus the second number) is 565 Gt.

And the odds seem to be very bad. It is considered to be almost impossible that we will manage to stay within this budget: (During the first decade, we’ve already used 1/3 of the budget and caused almost 1/2 of the targeted temperature rise.)

“In fact, study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent per year – and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton-allowance in 16 years.” Bill McKibben

The third number is 2,795 Gt CO2 and was first published by the carbon tracker initiative in 2011.

“The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies (…). In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.” Bill McKibben

Having a closer look at the second and the third number, we have to assume that 2,230 Gt CO2 worth of the world’s coal, gas and oil reserves have to remain untouched. 4/5 of the fossil fuels reserves are “unburnable” if we want to reach our 2°C target.

Wow! That’s what I would call a “trilemma” – a threefold dilemma:

Firstly, there is the psychological problem:

Imagine a passionate smoker is asked to quit smoking immediately (because of the looming health risks) – but a full pack is lying right in front of his/her nose. How likely do you think it is that the smoker stops smoking before the pack is empty?

Some psychologists might suggest that we could use positive or negative sanctions in order to ‘help’ him/her to become a non-smoker:

  • We could either fine the smoker for his pollution, or we could confiscate the remaining cigarettes – with or without compensation.
  • Another option could be a reward for every cigarette which remains untouched.

This might help, but as long as there is no true conviction and willful intent it is more likely that the person will feel patronized and deprived of his/her personal freedom and will fight with all means against those kinds of interventions. And the same is true for fossil fuel companies, but it’s even more complex.

Because secondly, there is the social/ political problem:

Unlike in our smoker example, we don’t have to convince one individual person, but we have to get to terms with a mighty and powerful industry. And as climate change is not a local problem, we also have to solve the problem on a global level. And we already know how (un)successful the global climate negotiations have been so far.

So far – so bad. But that’s not the whole story. The third aspect of my “trilemma” still needs to be told:

Thirdly, there is also a financial problem: The carbon bubble (and that’s what I learned this weekend from the latest issue of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit)

The financial problem is that the fossil fuel reserves are already in the books of the oil, gas and coal companies. The reserves are treated as assets – and this means that the share values are based in large part on “unburnable” fossil fuels. According to HSBC, coal, oil and gas companies would most probably loose around 50% of their current market value if they left their unburnable reserves untouched. Investors would withdraw their money – and the bursting of the carbon bubble would lead us directly into the next financial crises.

Apart from the fact that the oil, gas and coal companies are still busy investing loads of money (ca. $674 billion in 2012) in discovering and exploring additional fossil fuel reserves – and thus inflating the carbon bubble even more – nothing much happens.

According to the Zeit article it seems as if “the stock markets have either not thought through this topic thoroughly enough or they act on the assumption, that the world’s political leaders won’t do much about climate change.” (my translation)

I bet they are putting their money on the inactiveness of the world’s political leaders. And the carbon bubble grows and grows. 🙁

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