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440 months: that’s how long we have to avoid a climate crisis and achieve zero emissions

The Climate Commission’s report released today is a masterful synthesis of the most recent science, offering clear evidence of both climate change and the observed impacts.

However, the report is really about the choices we make and the future we shape as a consequence. I’ll provide some more commentary this week as I’m still reading the report. Having said that, it is a very accessible document and far more approachable than any IPCC report.

There are two key passages from the executive summary I wanted to highlight. These showcase the clear choices we must make:

Most nations of the world, including Australia, have agreed that the risks of a changing climate beyond 2°C are unacceptably high. The temperature rise is already approaching 1°C above preindustrial, nearly halfway to the 2°C limit. 

The best chance for staying below the 2°C limit requires global emissions to begin declining as soon as possible and by 2020 at the latest. Emissions need to be reduced to nearly zero by 2050. 

Stabilising the climate within the 2°C limit remains possible provided that we intensify our efforts this decade and beyond.

And that:

From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit.

Based on estimates by the International Energy Agency, emissions from using all the world’s fossil fuel reserves would be around five times this budget. Burning all fossil fuel reserves would lead to unprecendented changes in climate so severe that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.  

It is clear that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground and cannot be burned.

Between now and 2050, the world has a choice: to either decarbonise or face risks that will challenge the existence of our civilisation. The reserves of coal and oil must be kept in the ground.

If we fail, then the journey to 2°C and beyond will not be smooth.

It would more than likely involve a series of climate shocks as various tipping points are induced, the product of amplified feed-backs  – which in turn would also generate further changes to the climate.

The report notes the risk of tipping points:

An ice-covered Arctic Ocean is a large white surface that reflects sunlight. The loss of summer Arctic sea ice uncovers more dark ocean water that, in turn, absorbs more sunlight. This is another example of an amplifying feedback that drives further warming in the northern high latitudes, which in turn increase the rate of loss of sea ice. The loss of Arctic sea ice is happening so rapidly that it is often considered to be a fast feedback. 

As I said, there are choices to be made.

But how much time do we have to achieve zero emissions?

I did the maths.

We have 37 years to do this – 440 months (give or take).

That’s well within the lifetime of most people alive on the planet today.

Indeed, anyone under the age of 50 will share the journey to a hotter, less hospitable and different world should we fail to act.

If you’re under the age of 50, or have children and grandchildren then it is both yours and their best interest to act. It is not a problem for the distant future, the challenge is already here.

If you’re older, then you have the choice to be “an honorable ancestor“.

It is about choices: the choices you make, and the choices we can help society make.


They CC have also produced some good graphics. I’d recommend using these if you have a blog/site and sharing them via social media.

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