Two papers published in Nature this week give a troubling warning: we’re half of the way to a 2 °C rise in global temperatures. The reports say that such a rise will occur once a trillion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere, and we’re already half a trillion deep since the industrial revolution.
It’s taken a couple of hundred years to get this far, but with current emissions averaging about 9 billion tons a year and rising, we’re set to hit the trillion mark in just 40 years time. This effectively sets a framework for world leaders to agree on a “carbon budget”: we’ve got no more than a half-trillion tonnes to spend, and it’s got to be shared out somehow.
Parallels with the recession are inevitable. Governments overspent and banks over lent, and now we must adjust to the realisation that we’re not as rich as we thought. In the same way, rapid industrialisation has been one big extravagant carbon party, but now it’s the following morning and we’ve just realised how much we’ve spent.
How then do we go about paying our carbon bill? If it was just about money we could tuck the bill under the sofa and forget about it, relying on our overdraft and credit cards to get us through to the next pay day.
The trouble is, the next pay day isn’t coming. Once the carbon budget is spent there is no bank manager to plead with or government bailouts to rely on. Instead, the global warming bailiffs will be round to reclaim what they can. Rising sea levels will wipe out low-lying land and indeed entire island nations as payment, and we’ll wonder why we didn’t just settle the bill when we had the chance.
Thankfully, it’s not too late. We can cut up our carbon credit cards and reign in our spending through greater use of renewable energy, the interest-free loan in my increasingly stretched analogy. Action must be taken soon, however. Four decades seems like a long way off, but weaning ourselves from carbon entirely will probably take just as long.