The CO2 Safety Margin

2 02 2013
This is, as Susan describes it herself, “A little musing on personal connection with time and data and issues……”  I loved it so much, I asked her permission to reproduce it here as a guest post.  It sort of reminds of the old Arab saying (purportedly from a sheik) which goes something like: “My father rode a camel, I drove a car, my son rides a Lear Jet, his son will ride a camel…”  only way better!


The CO2 Safety Margin – Susan Krumdieck

Here is an analysis of the changes of energy consumption past present and future along with with CO2 atmospheric level and global climate change risk from the latest models.  However, let’s make it more interesting by also looking at 7 generations of my family.
I wanted to look at the atmospheric CO2 loading safety margin in relation to the atmospheric CO2 level that the models say will cause a 2° C temperature rise, and that will guarantee the end of our prosperous civilization by melting global ice and raising the sea level enough to destroy 80-90% of the investment that humanity has made to date.  It will also mean a mass extinction and complete climate chaos, so safety margin is a good name for it.  If we get to a safety margin of zero, then the worst will happen.  Right now the safety margin is 565 Gt of CO2. If we put that much more CO2 in the air, the safety margin will be zero.
This year our emissions are about 31 Gt per year. If we did not increase our emissions any further, then we would have 16 years until we have lost our safety margin.  The amount of proven reserves (Oil, gas, coal) that the energy companies plan to extract and bring to the market is 2795 Gt.  Here is my Family: Great Grandmother Agnes, Grandmother Ruth, Mother Sue, Me, Daughter Kierra, Granddaughter and Great Grand-daughter.
When Agnes was born, there was a global warming safety margin of CO2 atmospheric loading of 1362 Gt, and the world emissions were about 0.3 Gt/yr.  So, my Great Grandmother Agnes would have not been worried about the way that her society’s energy use might affect her great grand daughter (me).   She would have been much more worried about if I would be able to vote, have legal protection, survive wars and depression and even famine.
When I was born, the CO2 emission rate was up to 4.6 Gt/yr, and the safety margin was still 1257 Gt. When I was born, climate scientists had already been measuring the atmospheric CO2 level at Mauna Loa and could see it rising exponentially.  If the fossil fuel production rate had been frozen at 1963 levels back then, due to alarm over exponential growth of emissions, then the safety margin would not have been exceeded for another 273 years, in 2236!  No wonder not many people were worrying about climate change when I was a baby.
When Kierra was born in 1989, CO2 emissions were up to 13.2 Gt per year and the safety margin had shrunk to 1042 Gt.  This is the era where the Kyoto Protocol was established. It was understood that continued growth of CO2 emissions was presenting a risk.  The idea was to get the emissions into this 1990 range of 13.2 Gt from 2012 onward. In 1990 the safety margin would run out in 80 years at this rate of emissions.  That’s still just one lifetime, but it was thought that within that time some new technologies could be developed to reduce the emissions further. Needless to say, this didn’t happen.
Today, when Kierra is 24 years old and starting to think about a family….  The emissions level is 31 Gt per year. If the nations of the world woke up and agreed to limit fossil fuel extraction and use to the rate it is today, then when my granddaughter is 16 years old, the safety margin will be gone.
By my calculations – even if all the people of the world agreed on radical reductions of 15% in fossil fuel production per year for the next 10 years, so that the emission levels are a bit less than 20% of current emissions, or energy use equal to the level in the 1960’s…  Then the safety margin doesn’t run out until my great grand-daughter is 67 years old.
At my age now, I can face the impossible prospect of the world reducing fossil fuel production and use drastically.  I can think about how difficult that would be, how much hardship people would have using only 20% as much fuel.  Without that sacrifice, when my great-grand daughter is my age, she will have to face the impossible prospect of abandoning coastal cities, mass extinction of species, unbelievably severe droughts, floods, temperatures and storms.  In light of this frightening reality, sacrificing some of my conveniences seems minor in comparison.


Originally published by the Jackal




One response

2 02 2013
Trixie Deveau

thank you, trixie

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