An Update on Carbon Budgets

We’re not doing what we need to be doing

Steve Genco
3 min readNov 26, 2023

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A whimsical image of a glass terrarium in the shape of a piggy bank. Growing in dirt inside the piggy bank are two grass stalks growing in the shape of windmills.
Image from Shutterstock, standard license purchased.

I wrote about carbon budgets awhile back. That post had the distinction of being my least-read and least-clapped-for post. OK, I get it … not the most scintillating topic in the wide world of climate change. But I submit it may be the most important topic, because it describes how scientists track two crucial issues: (1) how much more CO2 and other GHGs can we afford to release into the atmosphere? and (2) how much hotter can we expect the planet to get once our carbon budget is exhausted?

Under the auspices of the IPCC, climate scientists have found that tracking carbon budgets is a good way to capture the relationships between fossil fuel use, CO2 emissions, and global temperatures. With a quantification of those interactions in hand, scientists can predict how hot it is going to get, given how much CO2 is in the atmosphere, which in turn depends on how much additional oil, gas, and coal we will burn before we stop.

The latest update of carbon budgets was completed this year (source). As can be seen in the table below, remaining carbon budgets for avoiding specific average temperature increases (here, 1.5°C, 1.7°C, and 2.0°C) have shrunk considerably between 2020 and 2023, thanks to our continued failure to curb emissions following the slight dip we experienced in 2020 (source). As of 2023, these updates show that achieving a 2-in-3 (67%) chance of holding global warming to 1.5C will require limiting our additional CO2 emissions, starting in 2024, to 150 gigatons in total.

A table showing remaining carbon budgets for keeping the global average temperature below various thresholds with different probabilities. The table shows carbon budgets for keeping temps under 1.5°C, 1.7°C, and 2.0°C with probabilities 17%, 33%, 50%, 67% and 83%. For example, the carbon budget for keeping temps below 1.5°C with a 50% probability is 250 gigatons of CO2.
Source, p. 2313

Given that the world emitted about 37 gigatons of CO2 in 2022 (source), we can start envisioning some timelines. In a separate analysis of the Forster updates, Hausfather calculates how many years it will take to reduce CO2 emissions to zero, assuming we start in 2024 and decrease emissions linearly every year until we reach zero, all the while emitting no more CO2 than the budget allows. Here are some results:

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Steve Genco

Steve is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019) & Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013). He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University.