King Coal’s Climate Challenge

The latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclude that we are quickly using up our carbon “budget” – the amount of carbon that we can afford to emit and still have a good chance of limiting global warming to 2º Celsius. And, when it comes to tolerable CO2 emissions, coal is the budget buster.

WASHINGTON, DC – Coal is emerging as a major topic of conversation at the United Nations climate-change negotiations currently taking place in Warsaw – and rightly so. Indeed, it is a discussion that the world needs to have.

The latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclude that we are quickly using up our carbon “budget” – the amount of carbon that we can afford to emit while still having a good chance of limiting global warming to 2º Celsius. According to the IPCC, keeping the global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels below this threshold – the recognized tipping point beyond which climate change is likely to get seriously out of control – requires that the world emit only about 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC). More than half of this amount was already emitted by 2011. Unless we shift away from carbon-intensive behavior, the remaining budget will run out in roughly three decades.

When it comes to tolerable CO2 emissions, coal is the budget buster. Just this week, a group of 27 prominent scientists, representing all major continents, issued a joint statement that explains that burning all known fossil-fuel reserves would produce about 3,800 gigatonnes of CO2, or 1,053 GtC, with coal alone accounting for more than half. Simply put, if the world burns its known coal reserves using current technologies, it is likely to push global temperature rise far beyond 2ºC.

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