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The carbon diet

Nobody ever wants to go on a diet. But when our health is at stake, when the consequences of inaction seem too high, generally—if reluctantly—we do what the doctor ordered. We cut back, and we go on a diet.

Some have called it an inconvenient truth, but the science is in and the doctor’s note is painstakingly written to be legible: It’s time for a carbon diet.

Consider a weight watchers analogy. You have a ‘budget’ of points that accumulate based on the number of calories in what you choose to eat. You can eat whatever you like as long as you stay within the budget of calories. And when you stay under budget, when your weight drops, you get a gold star.

As we embark on our carbon diet, there is a very specific carbon budget available to us. If we stay under budget, we can protect our families and communities from the impacts of severe climate change.

If we go over budget, we risk our health and safety, we put our food security at risk, and we inflict a world onto our children of droughts and floods and sea level rise and ocean acidification and extreme weather and vast migrations of people around the world. Are these costs that we are willing to accept, as a consequence of our actions and inactions?

Our carbon budget is not an unknown factor at this point. Nor does it need to be full of complicated science and numbers and percentages.

In fact it reads kind of like a grade four homework problem: We have 2,795 gigatons of known fossil fuel reserves in the world. Burning fossil fuels releases the greenhouse gases that warm our atmosphere. We know that to maintain our atmosphere below 2⁰ C warming, we can only burn 565 gigatons of fossil fuels. Therefore what do we need to do to maintain our global climate under 2⁰ C warming?

The answer: 565 gigatons is our global carbon budget. The rest of the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. To use our carbon budget wisely, we must use these 565 gigatons of carbon to build the infrastructure required for a zero carbon economy.

So, now, here’s the thing about a carbon diet. It requires making choices with our carbon budget in mind. If we continue to build infrastructure to extract and transport fossil fuels like fracking wells, coal mines and oil pipelines, infrastructure that locks us into future carbon emissions and global warming, we will entirely blow our budget.

Making the choice to stay within our carbon budget means no new fossil fuel projects. It means investing in energy conservation and renewable energy rather than investing in the tar sands, LNG terminals or coal mines. It means making the sacrifices required to protect our families, our children, our communities.

There is no getting around it; the health of our families and communities depends on the health of the environment we live in. We are at a crossroads and if we act now, if we stay within our carbon budget, we can say yes to a future we want to live in. A future with a liveable climate will be a future where British Columbia stays beautiful, a future with wild salmon, and with sustainable jobs for our children and our children’s children.

Here’s the other thing about a carbon diet. It is something we need to do together. We all have choices we can make in our own lives, to reduce the carbon emissions associated with what we eat and how we choose to get around. But our response needs to match the scale of the problem. We need government leadership to ensure that all choices around resource use and development are put through the filter of whether each decision keeps us under our carbon budget, or not.

It’s not really about the gold star. It’s about creating opportunities for green jobs, maintaining BC’s wild places, and doing what it takes to ensure a safe and healthy future for our children. Seems obvious. But if it helps us stay on our diet, we can make sure to celebrate with gold stars along the way.

Join Sierra Club BC in calling for provincial leadership that takes the necessary steps to keep us, collectively, within our carbon budget:


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