Here’s Some Good News About Climate Change. Really.

Here’s some potentially good news on the climate front. The most aggressive climate goal we have is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C above their pre-industrial average. The most recent IPCC report suggests that to do this, we need to limit total future carbon emissions to about 250 billion tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). This is all but impossible.

However, a team that includes some of the world’s leading experts on carbon budgets has published a new paper that resolves some contradictions in the IPCC figures and comes up with a much higher carbon budget: about 900 Gt. The following chart will make you cringe at first sight, but don’t worry. It’s fairly easy to explain.

On the left is the IPCC approach. It starts at 1870 and shows how much carbon is required to reach different temperatures. The intersection of the dotted lines indicates that temperatures will rise 1.5°C from 1870 when cumulative carbon emissions hit 2,150 Gt. Since we’ve already emitted 1,900 Gt, that means we have only about 250 Gt to go.

However, this approach doesn’t really match what we see happening right now, so the authors of the new study took a different approach: they started at 2015 instead. Since temperatures have already risen 0.9°C since 1870, our new target is to keep further increases below 0.6°C.

That’s what the chart on the right shows. The intersection of the dotted lines indicates that temperatures will rise 0.6°C from 2015 when we’ve emitted an additional 900 Gt of carbon. The good news here is that this is achievable. It’s not easily achievable, but it’s certainly not impossible.

For more detail on this, Glen Peters has you covered here. He warns that the real-life carbon budget for staying under 1.5°C is probably lower than the theoretical estimate, and he also has some warnings about the whole concept of carbon budgets in general. This is primarily because multiple studies have come up with vastly different estimates of how much carbon we can afford to emit this century if we want to stay below 1.5°C. It’s better, he argues, to simply say that “we need net-zero emissions by 2050 to 2100, as specified in the Paris Agreement.”

Nonetheless, he also says, “The implications of this paper are breathtaking.” As always, this is only one paper, so don’t take it to the bank yet. But this is serious work by leading experts. If it pans out, it means that we actually have a shot at staying below 1.5°C.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend