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Australian Climate Commission states the obvious: fossil fuels must remain in the ground

Surface temperature trends in Australia (from Climate Commission report)

This week, the Australian Climate Commission released their update on the report The Critical Decade, where they point out what should be obvious to most people by now – the climate is already changing, we can see the consequences around us and we should be making energy choices that reflect the need to stop burning carbon.

Climate Commissioners Professors Lesley Hughes and Will Steffen lay out the 2013 update on how we’re doing for this critical decade in which we need to get ourselves into gear if we’re going to preserve a liveable climate. Unsurprisingly, so far we’re all globally failing to do anything remotely substantial to cut carbon emissions because they’re still increasing each year.

The report starts off with some refreshing real talk, stating ‘it is clear that global society must virtually decarbonise in the next 30-35 years. This means that most of the fossil fuel reserves must say in the ground.’ Yes, in the ground as in unburned despite the financial carbon bubble that has been created by fossil fuel companies basing their stock market value on the promise of digging up all that carbon and frying us all in the name of short term profits.


Size of the carbon bubble (Unburnable Carbon report, Carbon Tracker Initiative)

The Commissioners also point out that we need to be taking future climate effects into account when making long term infrastructure decisions, because ‘the decisions we make from now until 2020 will largely determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience.’

Here’s a fun quiz for you: what’s more dangerous in Australia – crocodiles or heatwaves? If you said death by heatwave, you’re correct! I was even surprised to learn that heatwaves cause more deaths in Australia than any other natural hazard, and given that the high emissions scenario in the report projects that there could be 227/365 days a year above 35oC in Darwin by 2070, it could even get too hot for the poor crocodiles to bother eating you.


Climate Change: too hot for the crocs? (image: Thai Jasmine, flickr/creative commons)

The report also states the other point that should be obvious to everyone following the issue of climate change by now – that the balance between mitigation and adaptation (what we do now to prevent climate change and what we force future generations to pay for through our failure to act) is a judgement call that is based on what you define as ‘dangerous climate change’.

This is no longer a scientific problem for us – if it was just looking at the science and acting on it, there would have been action taken on climate change in the late 1980s after Dr. James Hansen first presented the evidence that humans were changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the US Senate.

The Commissioners look at where we’re at in terms of the atmosphere’s carbon budget if we are going to aim for the 2oC ceiling that most countries around the world have agreed we should all try and stay below. Similar to Bill McKibben’s global warming math, the report maps out the carbon budget we have left. For a 75% chance of staying below 2oC, humanity can only burn 1,000 billion tonnes (or Gigatonnes) of CO2 between 2000 and 2050. Thirteen years into that 50 year budget and we’ve already blown 391 billion tonnes, or almost 40%. Budgeting and living within our means fail, humanity.

This gives us 600 billion tonnes remaining that we need to spread out over the next 35 years, at which point our global economy needs to have decarbonised. So naturally, we’re starting to phase in alternatives to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as well as making it clear that no new fossil fuel resource development can take place, because there’s no point in searching for more fossil fuels if we can’t afford to burn them, right?


Overspent our budget already (image: Climate Commission © 2013)

No – we’re just burning them even faster like they’re going out of fashion. Emissions rose globally by 2.6% between 2011-2012, and are increasing at a rate of around 3% per year. Which means we’ll burn through our carbon budget by 2028, at which point we either go cold turkey on fossil fuels (yeah, right) or just keep merrily sailing down the path of causing our own extinction.

Even the most optimistic scenarios that the Commissioners could run the numbers for; where things like carbon capture and storage are more than just an oil executive’s pipedream, we can still only afford to burn about 35% of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves.

As they state in the conclusion; ‘the carbon budget is clear and compelling. Critically, most of the known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground’.  Which means we have a choice. To put a price on carbon and make it too expensive to continue burning, or to become the dumbest intelligent species yet to have knowingly caused our own extinction through wilful blindness. You choose. 

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