A hard deadline: we must stop building new carbon infrastructure by 2018

Cars built today will emit CO2 for a further decade on average - resulting in the world breaking its carbon budget.
There will be enough fossil fuel-burning stuff - cars, homes, factories, power plants - built by next year to blow through our carbon budget for a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. Never mind staying below a safer, saner 1.5 degrees of global warming, warns STEPHEN LEAHY
A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments

There will be enough fossil fuel-burning stuff - cars, homes, factories, power plants, etc. - built by next year to blow through our carbon budget for a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. Never mind staying below a safer, saner 1.5 degrees of global warming. 


The relentless laws of physics have given us a hard, non-negotiable deadline that is being widely ignored by nearly all our political, and business leaders.


I asked Steve Davis of the University of California, co-author of a ground-breaking climate study, “by 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again unless they’re either replacements for old ones or are carbon neutral? Are you sure I worked that out right?


Davis told me over the phone: “Your numbers are broadly correct. That’s what this study means.” Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University published a study called “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions.” A new coal plant built today will emit CO2 - carbon dioxide - throughout its 40- to 60- year lifespan. 


That’s called a carbon commitment — the amount of CO2 something will emit over its lifetime. A new truck or car that burns petrol or diesel means eight to 10 years of CO2 emissions from that vehicle.


Davis and Socolow’s study estimated how much CO2 will be emitted by most things that burn oil, gas, or coal we had already built up to 2012. It is the first to actually total up all of these carbon commitments.


Based on their work, I estimated that if we continue to build new fossil fuel burning stuff at the average rate of last five years in their study, we’d make enough new carbon commitments to blow through our 2°C carbon budget sometime in 2018 - which is now only a months away.

A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments


“Is that really where we are?” I asked Davis.


There was a pause, and I could hear the happy sounds of children playing from his end of the phone. Eventually Davis said:  “Yes, that’s where we find ourselves.”


Our conversation became awkward. I suddenly felt guilty bringing this up, and desperately tried not to think that one day those happy children will despise us for leaving them a ransacked planet whipsawed by a chaotic climate. “My kids’ swimming lesson is over, I have to go,” he finally said.


Peak and sharply decline 


I couldn’t accept that we need to immediately slow production of new things like factories, hospitals, homes, and ten thousand other things that use fossil fuels. I couldn’t accept that everything had to change…right away.


I sent out emails to leading scientists in different countries practically begging them to tell me I screwed up the math or something. “It’s a different way of looking at where we are but you’ve got it right,” they said.


Hardly anyone is talking about how much things need to change. Well-established science says that annual global CO2 emissions need to peak and sharply decline before 2020. 


Wait until after 2020 and the costs of reducing emissions rise rapidly, as does the risk of exceeding 2°C. The 2018 deadline is consistent with this. It just happens to be a more meaningful way of looking at where we stand, and the climate consequences of the decisions being made today to build a school, a data centre, or another 10,000 diesel-powered farm tractors.


One reason 2°C is becoming increasingly unreachable is that everyone is fixated on annual CO2 emissions. While humanity pumped an eye-popping 36.4 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2016, that big number looks tiny compared to the roughly 1,000 billion tons of CO2—or 1,000 gigatons (Gt)—that can be emitted for a better than 50-50 chance of staying below 2°C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report.


Danger zone of climatic disaster


And even though annual CO2 emissions flat-lined the last three years, we will still have built enough stuff before the end of 2018 to have accounted for that entire 1,000 Gt carbon budget. We could shut things down before their end-of-life date, but who is going to make that happen? Who is going to pay for such “stranded assets”?


When I asked Robert Socolow of Princeton about all this, he said: “We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves - a high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.”


Right now the data shows “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow said.


In 2018 the automobile manufacturer Volvo plans to open a new $500 million factory in the US producing 60,000 petrol-burning cars a year. Not to pick on one car company, but the carbon commitments from those cars will take us over the 2°C budget, further into the danger zone of climatic disaster.


Decisions made today matter more than any time in human history.


Carbon dioxide is like a slow, trans-generational poison. Add CO2 to the atmosphere today and it will trap additional heat from the sun for hundreds of years. 


No one will notice in 2018 that we’ve built enough fossil fuel infrastructure to blow through the 2°C budget. We’re already experiencing a wide range of climate extremes including deadly heat waves, and it won’t be obviously worse in 2018. 


A slow shift underway


However in 10 or 20 years the truly nasty impacts of being trapped in an ever-hotter world will begin to take hold —and then they will persist for a very, very long time.


It is blindingly obvious that building more things that burn coal, oil, and gas equals more CO2 emissions. And it is equally clear that in more fossil-fuel burning stuff continues to make it profitable for companies and countries to invest in extracting more climate-destroying fossil fuels.


Even a seven-year old child knows you don’t solve a problem by making it worse.


There is a slow shift underway to replace fossil fuels with renewables, electric vehicles and more. However this is not happening nearly fast enough considering the massive carbon commitments in the stuff we already have built and, more importantly, continue to build. 


Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats don’t seem to truly understand that decisions made today commit us and every generation that follows to even greater levels of CO2. At some point those decisions will be undone. In fear and desperation what was built will be abandoned at enormous cost.


The blame and the bill


Or political and business decision makers could make different choices. There is wide-spread support for the 2015 Paris climate agreement, despite President Trump. 


However, government pledges and climate action commitments made under the now-ratified Paris Agreement will lead to a warming of 2.8 C, with a likely chance of holding warming below 3.1C according to the latest scientific estimate.  


This reveals the reality that we need to stop building new fossil-fuel burning stuff now, not tomorrow or in 2030. Without making those hard decisions today there is little chance of staying under 2C, an outcome confirmed in a new study published in Nature Climate Change.


We should not forget who deserves the blame and the bill for failing to make these hard decisions. And we should not forget which 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world's CO2 emissions and continue to profit from adding more. They are listed here.


This Author


Stephen Leahy is author of Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products, winner of the Best Science Book of 2014. He is also co-winner of the Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change Reporting. 

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