Mike Baillie
Mike Baillie

Three scary numbers

Last week I came across three numbers that left me numb[1]. Together they brought home the essence of the climate fix we’re in — and the massive profit margins that are riding on us failing to deal with the challenge.

In essence it’s about the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere, and the handful of corporates who’re hoping like hell we aren’t able to kick our fossil fuel dependence (and lobbying their asses off in case we get too close).

The three numbers show that the amount of carbon dioxide we can still safely release into the atmosphere is dwarfed by the amount of carbon the top fossil-fuel companies already have on their books (in the form of oil reserves, for example) — and that number is dwarfed again by the amount of carbon that remains in all the earth’s fossil-fuel reserves.

Here are the three numbers at a glance:

  • The first is 500GT: the amount of carbon dioxide we can still safely release into the atmosphere before 2050. By “safely” I mean the amount we can let off and still keep within the goldilocks range of a 2-degree temperature rise.
  • The second number is 745GT: the amount of carbon that the top fossil-fuel companies (Shell, Exxon, etc) have in their oil, coal, and gas reserves, ready to be sold and burnt: already 50% more than we can safely use.
  • The third is 2 050GT: if we were to burn all the earth’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves, this is how much carbon we’d release — four times the amount we can safely use.

Basically fossil-fuel companies already have more reserves than what we can safely use. If they stopped exploring for new oil fields today, and sold off only what they’d already accounted for, we would still far exceed our carbon budget.

In other words, avoiding runaway climate change would require those companies to leave a large portion of their oil and coal reserves in the ground, unused and unsold.

If the opposite happens, if those companies are free to continue prospecting for new reserves, as they’re currently doing, we could theoretically blow our carbon budget four times over.

It all makes for a thoroughly disheartening picture: the business models of some of the world’s most powerful corporates are squarely at odds with planetary limits. And despite already having more oil, coal, and gas than we can safely burn, the likes of Shell are actively looking for more — take their recent accident-prone Arctic exploits for example.

Taking recent emission rates into account, we have roughly 13 years until we reach the limits of our carbon budget: after that we’re in the crimson red, forcefully pushing into the realm of runaway climate change.

And as this is happening, as these three numbers are sliding up and down, the profits of fossil-fuel companies keep climbing, and economists and policy makers applaud as our Jenga tower gets taller and taller: their eyes focussed on a completely different set of numbers, those preceded with fat dollar signs.


[1] The numbers and calculations in this post are all drawn from this infographic and the calculations for that graphic are all available here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

  • Eskom and Sasol put a low price on life
  • Illicit capital flowing out of Africa often benefits foreign investors
  • ‘F*ck for Forest’ – a film review
  • I am not voting against the ANC
  • 23 Responses to “Three scary numbers”

    1. Daniel Berti #

      So what do we do?

      August 22, 2013 at 7:25 pm
    2. Concerned #

      A phrase for those who deny man-made global warming and pollution – “don’t confuse me with facts: I have made up my mind”…

      August 23, 2013 at 8:59 am
    3. Enough Said #

      1) We can choose to do nothing and passively accept the Sixth Major Extinction of Life on Earth.

      2) We can choose to topple the current world order and stop the Sixth Major Extinction of Life on Earth.

      *** It is interesting to note that if chemical industrial agriculture throughout the world were converted to agro-ecological farming we would enjoy far greater food security and carbon capture by the soil would take CO2 levels back to what they were before the start of the industrial revolution relatively quickly.

      This would buy us time to convert to nearly 100% renewable energy. To do this we would have to depose the worlds wealthiest business elite and implement environmentally sustainable solutions.

      August 23, 2013 at 11:10 am
    4. Enough Said #

      1) We can choose to do nothing and passively accept the Sixth Major Extinction of Life on Earth.

      2) We can choose to topple the current world order and stop the Sixth Major Extinction of Life on Earth.

      *** It is interesting to note that if chemical industrial agriculture throughout the world were converted to agro-ecological farming we would enjoy far greater food security, and carbon capture by the soil would take CO2 levels back to what they were before the start of the industrial revolution relatively quickly.

      This would buy us time to convert to nearly 100% renewable energy. To do this we would have to depose the worlds wealthiest business elite and implement environmentally sustainable solutions.

      August 23, 2013 at 11:11 am
    5. @Mike
      Numbers without uncertainties do not mean much in a scientific sense. It is also crucial to discern between carbon (atomic mass 12) and the dioxide (molecular mass 44), as the tonnages differ in that ratio. In what terms are the reserves, for instance, expressed? What about water vapour and methane, both much more effective greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide? Too difficult to model properly? But it is also more difficult to find the human race ‘guilty’ of those and tax them. Unfortunately tax is a kind of second agenda, and scaring people witless is also a way to make them willing to pay. In spite of my misgivings I would advocate using fossil fuels sparingly, but for rational reasons.

      August 23, 2013 at 11:47 am
    6. Some pretty poor logic. Carbon dioxide is continuously converted back to carbon and oxygen by plant growth. Remember grade 6 Nature Study when you learned about photosynthesis? The more CO2 produced the more the plants can grow and thrive. It does not just sit there forever.

      August 23, 2013 at 11:47 am
    7. Stephen #

      We are apparently at the tipping point of 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet during one of the coldest periods of earth’s history,the Ordivician ice age, CO2 levels were at 10 000ppm?

      There is aparently good science behind the antagonists of the position that man is solely responsible for global warming; but rarely are they afforded the opportunity to get heard.; so not PC is their position.

      Unlike the corrupt Mann hockey stick curve in Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, the corrolation between sun spot activity and hot and cold periods on the planet is very close.

      I am sure by spewing out around 30bn tonnes of CO2 annually man must have an impact, but solar activity remains the main driver. As we move towards the end of the stable hollocene period, things geologically and weather-wise will become much more turbulent.

      Getting back on our bikes will make no difference.

      August 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm
    8. Zeph #

      Look to the sun – there is not much we can do. If we are to fry it will fry us…carbon helps but me thinks it is more to do with our sun…

      August 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm
    9. Paul Bluewater #

      For the record, carbon is not released when “they” produce it, it is released when “you” burn it.. in electricity, in your vehicle, or in a million products “you” buy routinely.

      Looking at the data, temperature and CO2 concs., while increasing, are actually at lows considering data over the past few 100 000 years.

      We are all responsible for using resources. Are the producers really more guilty than the consumers, when the latter actually burn the stuff and release the gas? We, as consumers, are complicit at best.

      August 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm
    10. @All: I had to chuckle at Richard Becker’s old ‘C02 is awesome for plants, let’s spew more of it into the atmosphere’ canard. It reminded me of this classic piece of lobbying: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_VmMIbWKoo

      Dude, you need to update your spin :D

      @Daniel & Enough: I agree. We need to topple the current systems of hierarchy and domination. It can’t come soon enough!

      August 23, 2013 at 3:09 pm
    11. Paul S #

      Richard Becker’s science is more than a tad dated. Last week PlosOne (a highly respected peer reviewed science body) reported a solid study showing that the world’s forests are losing their capacity as carbon sinks and that their CO2 uptake will continue to diminish. Toss out that old Grade 6 science book and do some current reading.

      August 23, 2013 at 4:39 pm
    12. mmmm #

      and it matters why? something else will evolve. in the big analysis of life of earth by the species that will evolve from a tropical bug that thrives on heat, humans will rate “mostly harmless”. Dinosaurs will get a whole chapter.

      August 23, 2013 at 11:12 pm
    13. Concerned #

      Richard Becker, you have clearly not read or thought. While “The more CO2 produced the more the plants can grow and thrive” is superficially true, the plants are being cut down faster, and CO2 is being produced faster. The destruction of forests is clearly documented. The oceans are not absorbing it faster either. And the excess CO2 is also in the upper atmosphere, where there are no plants last I looked, and trapping heat.

      August 24, 2013 at 7:27 am
    14. Maria #

      Excellent post, Mike. I sure hope readers are taking note. Unless like-minded people who value our planet and its life-giving resources start doing something soon, to topple the capitalist states by voting present rulers out of power, we can sit down and watch the sun go down on human “civilization”…

      August 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm
    15. lusta #

      What is causing the melting of the ice caps in the poles as well as the subsequent rise in the sea level??

      I am no scientist but i have listened to compelling arguements both from those who are avocating global warming, as well as those against the phenomenon. However,it is difficult to understand how the south african government has allowed Shell to continue with fracking in the karoo whereas their policy position is apparently moving towards adopting renewable energy sources as the next frontier in powering our economy . this then bergs the question: Are these major corporations such as shell, propelling the anti-global warming sentiment??

      August 26, 2013 at 2:25 pm
    16. Please read this before being so certain of your ‘facts’: http://www.lavoisier.com.au/articles/greenhouse-science/climate-change/longversionfinal.pdf

      August 26, 2013 at 3:09 pm
    17. @Richard: Perhaps you should check your sources more carefully – the Lavoisier Group is a mining industry lobby group whose ‘science’ has been soundly critiqued: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Lavoisier_Group

      August 26, 2013 at 3:51 pm
    18. Brent #

      Mike there is a site called 350.org that has been around for some time now and has as its main objective to make sure we do not get to and pass the 350ppm level for CO2. At this level we will certainly get 2 degrees warming and world disaster, a point they have vigerously defended and abused anyone who differed from them. Now i see the figure is 450ppm before we hit world disaster, what please is the real cut off figure, if any? On oil and reserves, the West’s oil majors control under 25% of the worlds supply and reserves of oil the balance being firmly in the control of state oil companies. The Saudi state oil company being the biggest. The last time i looked the Saudi state oil company was almost bigger than the 5 biggest western oil companies combined. So dont you think it would assist your endeavours if you put a bit of pressue on state oil companies also, or is this against your socialist/statest principals? Make the 75% owners back off and the 25% must follow suit, seems logical to me.Brent

      August 26, 2013 at 8:09 pm
    19. Bob Miller #

      Meanwhile recent results seems to indicate that increased CO2 is also responsible for greener desserts. This from the Australian version of the CSIR:

      http://www.csiro.au/en/Portals/Media/Deserts-greening-from-rising-CO2.aspx

      August 27, 2013 at 8:12 am
    20. Tom Evans #

      Mike to bring things into perspective, carbon dioxide only comprises 0.03% of the earth’s atmosphere – an amount so small that any increase would probably only have a negligible effect. Rotting vegetation in the oceans is the largest contributor of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – not man or coal or factories.

      August 27, 2013 at 12:51 pm
    21. Comrade Koos #

      Leave the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole.

      August 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm
    22. Momma Cyndi #

      If it makes humans kinder to mother earth, I’m willing to go along with the myth. If you really want ‘greenhouse’ gasses to be reduced, you may want to speak to those darn volcanoes though. Those are a serious problem

      August 28, 2013 at 6:42 pm
    23. Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too.
      This kind of clever work and exposure! Keep up the awesome works
      guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my personal blogroll.

      December 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Leave a Reply

     characters available