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Time is Running Out and the Carbon Clock is Ticking Away

As our beautiful blue planet continues to spin deep in space, we humans down here on the ground are grappling with whether or not climate change is within our control. Meanwhile, the carbon clock is rapidly ticking away.

I learned about the Mercator Research Institute carbon clock from the Climate Web, a comprehensive knowledge bank containing pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about climate change and more. The carbon clock remaining CO2 budget offers us one way to visualize climate change and the amount of time we have left to solve it.

Mercator's clock demonstrates the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we can emit into our atmosphere before our planet becomes toast (or uninhabitable) in many parts of the world. In other words, the carbon clock shows the amount of time left for decision-makers to find solutions for capping global warming at levels that will enable humans to continue thriving on this planet.

Selecting either 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius on the clock below allows us to see how much time remains before we've expended the carbon budget. At 2 degrees Celsius we have less than 20 years of remaining CO2 budget. At 1.5 degrees Celsius it appears that we have (gulp) less than two years.



These global warming scenarios assume a limited carbon budget of roughly 800 gigatons between now and 2100, according to Mercator's scientists. At our current rate we're emitting 40 gigatons of CO2 globally each year (or 1268 tons CO2 each second). In other words, our budget is shrinking very, very fast and we need to get to work tightening (and cinching) our belts.

Watching this carbon clock rapidly ticking away may seem daunting yet seeing is believing. Perhaps the carbon clock could have a role in helping us to visualize climate change, wake up and act swiftly on solutions. Yet who is motivated?

During the COP21 Paris Agreement last year, that came into force November 2016, about 190 countries each agreed to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

Yale Environment 360 and many others researched these global warming scenarios and found significant differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Debilitating weather extremes, dramatic increases in dry spells, massive decline in food crops and annihilation of coral reefs are a reality for either scenario in varying degrees.

Researchers asserted that earth might have a chance at regeneration if we can cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The difference could save the amazon rainforests, prevent a complete melting of the Arctic in the summer and save coastal regions from inundation from rising sea levels. Yet it is no secret that limiting global warming at either of these scenarios is ambitious and time is running out.

There's another type of carbon clock you might want to know about if you haven't  seen yet. The Bloomberg Carbon Clock shows the level of global CO2 in the atmosphere currently at more than 405 parts per million (ppm) and swiftly ticking upwards.

carbon clock

To put this in perspective, our atmosphere contained about 275 ppm since the beginning of civilization. World renowned scientists (James Hanson), other scientists, experts, and progressive national governments have determined the "safe" level of carbon dioxide for our planet to be 350 ppm.

There are many organizations such as the Climate Reality Project working on solutions at the local level and training leaders to spread the word. I attended a talk with one of these leaders, Bill Bradbury, last year to understand how global warming is affecting us in the Pacific Northwest and what we can do about it.

To achieve the ambitious goals necessary to return our planet to relative safe zones, Mercator's policy brief bets on extremes like negative emissions, rapid carbon dioxide removal, and transformation of our energy systems. Included in this long list of measures are such things as bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECC), ocean fertilization, direct air capture, biochar, forestry and land conservation.

Other organizations such as are calling for complete divestment of fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable farming practices.

One thing is certain. The carbon clock will continue ticking swiftly upwards until we act to slow it down.