Peak carbon by 2025 or mass extinction of species

I have been looking back at some of my earliest posts on this blog; and have decided that now would be a good time to pull together some of the key points I have highlighted over the years – regarding anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). I prefer the use of ‘ACD’ because it is far more accurate than more popular terms such as ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. Firstly, then, ACD is an observed multi-decadal reality that cannot be explained by natual causes (i.e. sunspot cycles or volcanic eruptions, etc). See: Comfortably numb is not good enough (3 September 2012). The reason we keep getting double six (7 August 2012). Secondly, climate science is not complicated or contentious, it is simply inconvenient for big business to accept. This is why the fossil fuel industry has spent the last 50 years trying to perpetuate the myths that it is both of these things. See: Climate science in a nutshell – Part 1 (31 October 2011) (see also Part 2 that followed it). Peddlers of doubt – monkeys or organ-grinders (20 Feb 2012). Thirdly, and most importantly, the key thing to which the title of this post alludes: Research by a team at the University of Oxford published in 2009, which I first referenced in the first month of this blog’s existence (August 2011). This research shows that it is the total (i.e. cumulative) amount of fossilised carbon that we (have and will) put into the atmosphere that will determine the temperature change we will see over the next 50 years or so.

Myles Allen's graph of 1 trillion tonne emissions curves

Extract of paper presented at ‘4 Degrees and Beyond’ conference (2009)

As per the Climate Change By Numbers programme on BBC4 Television, climate scientists are agreed that, in order to avoid irreversible and unsurvivable changes to the Earth’s climate, humans need to avoid adding 1 trillion tonnes of fossilised carbon (1000 GtC) to the atmosphere. It therefore strikes me now, looking again at the above graph, that limiting global cumulative emissions of fossilised carbon to 1000 GtC will only be feasible if emissions peak within the next 10 years and the later the peak the more rapid the phase-out needs to be to keep the area under the graph the same (i.e. equivalent to 1000 GtC). Governments around the world were very slow to react to the existential threat of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last year. Evidence is now growing that, in taking over 25 years to take decisive action to minimise ACD, our governments have endangered the future survival of the vast majority of species on the planet (see biological and financial evidence below). This is an avoidable tragedy. What our governments have Altmaned is a public mandate to act. I really hope this will soon emerge because, if it does not, evidence is growing that the sixth mass extinction of speies is already underway. See: ‘Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?’ (Nature, 471, 51–57, 3 March 2011). That being the case, given the glacial pace at which progress has been made thus far, I think it is fair to say that humanity is rapidly running out of time to act. Furthermore, the problem is compunded by the fact that, under pressure from government-appointed scrutineers and/or sock-puppets of the fossil fuel industry, the UN/IPCC have consistently underestimated the costs of adapting to climate change. See: ‘Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change’ (IIED, 2009).


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Anthropocene, Climate Science, Denial, Environment, Fossil Fuels, IPCC, Mass Extinctions, Politics, UNFCCC and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Peak carbon by 2025 or mass extinction of species

    • Patrice Ayme says:

      Very interesting graph. Pretty catastrophic too.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks, Catweazle, but I agree with Patrice. In the 1950s the petroleum industry expected nuclear energy to become the dominant source for global power within 40 years. Sadly, the Cold War and CND conspired to prevent that happening. If it had done, we might not be in the mess we are now. Having already wasted 20 years not building them, we cannot wait another 20 years to build a new generation of nuclear power stations (that can use nuclear waste and uranium from sea water as fuel). This leaves our salvation in the hands of a range of renewable energy sources that are all, sadly, very low density (MW per hectare). [Comment edited after posting]


  1. uilyam says:

    Rick, you might download the 17-page pdf at and consider the evidence and arguments presented there regarding seven climate myths: Myth 1: Climate change is not yet dangerous. Myth 2: 2 C is an appropriate focus for policy making. Myth 3: Big tipping points are unlikely before 2 C. Myth 4: We should mitigate for 2 C, but plan to adapt to 4 C. Myth 5: We have a substantial carbon budget left for 2 C. Myth 6: Long-term feedbacks are not materially relevant for carbon budgeting. Myth 7: There is time for an orderly, non-disruptive reduction in emissions within the current political-economic paradigm.


  2. Patrice Ayme says:

    The global emissions of CO2 are around 50 Gigatons, yearly (with 35 Gt just from burning carbon; the rest from land use, and land abuse). This does NOT take into account another 13% or so, supplementary contributions from other man-made greenhouse gases. The increased load of CO2 from human emissions is around 2%, a year, of its total content in the atmosphere. Half of this supplement goes into the ocean (acidifying it, and we are close to the danger point). Big Oil employs lots of smart educated scientists with PhD, or the like. Big Oil has another problem: new oil fields have a very bad ROI. Big Oil know all this. Big Oil knows AGW is real, and just a facet of an immense catastrophe. Some Big Oil companies have thus diversified (say in solar energy). So the resistance to curbing carbon burning comes mostly from other sources (coal, small operators, Koch brothers, etc.). They finance high profile deniers (such as Obama’s law professor at Harvard). It would be a huge amount of work to make society carbon free, and take out the fossil fuel rents. If all of society knew and understood the numbers I just mentioned, carbon burning would be phased out quickly. Meanwhile California is enjoying a megadrought directly connected to AGW, the greatest in at least 2,000 years..


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks, Patrice. All very scary. Had not thought to split oil company executives from coal ones. I think they all know exactly what they are doing – and they are all just hoping they can escape to Elysium before everything goes haywire. Don’t tell anyone, right, but I have had to edit my 3-order-of-magnitude mistake. [i.e. 1 trillion tonnes is 1000 Gt – 😉 ]


      • Patrice Ayme says:

        Hi Rick: I also made a billion into trillion mistake in a recent essay of mine. It was pointed out by a reader! It was about the wealth of some plutocrats: I was just ahead of the times a bit. BTW, in that essay, it was the same, as with Big Oil versus Big Coal, namely SOME plutocrats are disagreeing with the extent of plutocracy we got ourselves into. The concentration of powers we have now is the dominant factor in the global crises (from bees to nitrogen…)


      • Rick Altman says:

        I can’t find reference to either ‘bees’ or ‘nitrogen’ in your essay. Bees I understand; and I presume you are alluding to the over-use of nitrogen-based fertilisers in developed countries (leading to algal blooms, hormone disruption and/or mutations)…?


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