Carbon Budget Crunch

The latest IPCC report released this September gave the planet a carbon budget for the amount of carbon we can emit into the atmosphere without causing catastrophic climate change. The global agreed limit to keep climate change below 2oC of warming is 1,000 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon.

This sounds like a lot, but by 2011 we’d already burned through approximately 531Gt of this budget, and we’re on track to burn through the rest of it in the next 20-30 years (depending on what we do to reduce carbon emissions).

Which makes me start thinking; when the carbon budget crunch inevitably comes, what’s going to give first? Obviously, the easiest thing to do first is green the electricity grid through decentralised hybrid-renewable grids. It’s pretty straightforward to provide baseload power through a decentralised grid that feeds from different sources and numerous papers have run the numbers for how it will work in Australia, parts of the United States, Canada and Europe.

This can then be linked through to getting combustion engines off the roads as we switch to electric cars, and provide a fair dent in the amount of carbon we burn, while also saving oil for less wasteful purposes than burning in an engine. But the thing I keep thinking about is slightly more selfish – affordable air travel.

I’m an Australian with half my family in Canada, so I’ve had a passport since I was 3 years old and have been travelling since that age too. But I can’t shake the thought that it’s possible that air travel is going to be one of the first things to become either restricted or totally unaffordable when the scale of carbon reductions required becomes urgent.

This is going to affect the time it takes to get things around the world (your cheaply made fast fashion from Asia is not going to be as cheap or as fast) and cause a fair reshuffle to how our globalised economy currently operates. It is also going to affect travel and the time it takes to get people around the world.

It makes me wonder if people are thinking the next few decades ahead and already planning for climate change. Are people thinking that the next time they move, maybe they should move closer to home in case the cost of getting back later becomes prohibitively expensive? Should I burn the carbon to go see the Great Barrier Reef before we lose it to coral bleaching and ocean acidification? It takes more than 20 years worth of my carbon emissions budget for travel to fly from Canada to Australia.

Or even more practically, are people thinking that the next time they move, they should not only move above the coastal flood line, but also move to somewhere that’s going to have enough water and agriculture for their kids to survive?

The age of climate impacts is already upon us – climate change is no longer something in the distant future that will affect generations unborn. It’s here and now. It’s spring bushfires in Australia, hurricane-strength storms in England, it’s cleaning up from 1-in-100 year floods over and over again, or having your town in Colorado flooded after a drought and not having enough time to clean up before the snow arrives. It’s a world of more common extremes.

It’s a world where questions of climate adaptation or preparation will become commonplace – a job offer in Phoenix with cheap housing prices might not be as tempting when it runs out of water. There’s likely to be ‘brain drain’ from countries that failed to see the post-carbon era coming, as smart young people move to places where the renewable energy technology is being developed and then sold to the rest of the world (or possibly rest of the continent if air travel is one of the first things to go).

The world is going to become a very different place over the next few decades. The exciting part is that we have the power to shape what it might look like. The scary part is we might not make the decision to move swiftly enough to a post-carbon economy. However it turns out, it’s definitely going to be interesting. 

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