A Hard Deadline: We Must Stop Building New Carbon Infrastructure by 2018

In only three years there will be enough fossil fuel-burning stuff—cars, homes, factories, power plants, etc.—built to blow through our carbon budget for a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. Never mind staying below a safer, saner 1.5°C of global warming. The relentless laws of physics have given us a hard, non-negotiable deadline, making G7 statements about a fossil fuel-phase out by 2100 or a weak deal at the UN climate talks in Paris irrelevant.

“By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again unless they’re either replacements for old ones or are carbon neutral? Are you sure I worked that out right?” I asked Steve Davis of the University of California, co-author of a new climate study.

“We didn’t go that far in our study. But yes, your numbers are broadly correct. That’s what this study means,” Davis told me over the phone last fall.

Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University published a groundbreaking paper in Environmental Research Letters last August, entitled “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions.” A new coal plant will emit CO2 throughout its 40- to 60- year lifespan. That’s called a carbon commitment. A new truck or car will mean at least 10 years of CO2 emissions. Davis and Socolow’s study estimated how much CO2 will be emitted by most things that burn oil, gas, or coal, and it is the first to actually total up all of these carbon commitments.

Based on their work, I estimated that if we continue to build new fossil fuel burning stuff at the average rate of the last five years, we’ll make enough new carbon commitments to blow through our 2°C carbon budget sometime in 2018.

“Is that really where we are?” I asked Davis.

There was a pause, and I could hear the happy sounds of children playing from his end of the phone. Eventually Davis said “yes, that’s where we find ourselves.”

Our conversation then became awkward. I suddenly felt guilty bringing this up, and desperately tried not to think that one day those happy children will despise us for leaving them a ransacked planet whipsawed by a chaotic climate.

“My kids’ swimming lesson is over, I have to go,” he finally said.

I couldn’t accept that we need to immediately slow production of new things like factories, hospitals, homes, and ten thousand other things that use fossil fuels. I couldn’t accept that everything had to change…right away. I sent out emails to leading scientists in different countries practically begging them to tell me I screwed up the math or something. “It’s a different way of looking at where we are but you’ve got it right,” they said.

2018 is less than three years away and hardly anyone is talking about this.

Well-established science that says global CO2 emissions need to peak and decline before 2020. Wait until after 2020 and the costs of reducing emissions rise rapidly, as does the risk of exceeding 2°C. The 2018 deadline is consistent with this. It just happens to be a more meaningful way of looking at where we stand, and the consequences of the decisions being made today to build a school, a data center, or 10,000 diesel-powered farm tractors.

One reason 2°C is becoming increasingly unreachable is that everyone is fixated on annual CO2 emissions. While humanity pumped an eye-popping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2014, that big number looks tiny compared to the roughly 1,000 billion tons of CO2—or 1,000 gigatons (Gt)—that can be emitted for a better than 50-50 chance of staying below 2°C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report.

And yet, without making different choices today, we will have built enough stuff by 2018 to have accounted for that entire budget. We could shut things down before their end-of-life date, but who is going to make that happen? Who is going to pay for such “stranded assets”?

When I asked Robert Socolow of Princeton about all this, he said: “We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.”

To repeat: “A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.”

Right now the data shows that “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow said.

In May, Volvo announced a new $500 million factory in the US that will produce 100,000 cars a year in 2018. Not to pick on one car company, but the CO2 from those cars will take us over the 2°C budget, further into the danger zone of climatic disaster.

Decisions made today matter more than any time in human history.

Carbon dioxide is like a slow, trans-generational poison. Add CO2 to the atmosphere today and it will trap additional heat from the sun for hundreds of years. No one will notice in 2018 that we’ve built enough fossil fuel infrastructure to blow through the 2°C budget. Things won’t look or feel too much different than right now. The extremely nasty impacts of being trapped in an ever-hotter world won’t be fully felt until 2030 or 2040 —and then they will persist for a very, very long time.

It is blindingly obvious that building more things that use coal, oil, and gas equals more CO2 emissions. And building these things keeps it profitable for companies and countries to invest in extracting more climate-destroying fossil fuels.

Even a seven-year old child knows you don’t solve a problem by making it worse.

There is a slow shift underway to replace fossil fuels, but it’s not happening nearly fast enough considering the massive carbon commitments in the stuff we already have built—and continue to build. Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats don’t seem to understand this. They don’t seem to truly grasp that decisions made today commit us and every generation that follows to greater levels of CO2. At some point those decisions will be undone. What was built will be abandoned at enormous cost. We should not forget who deserves the blame and the bill.

This is what the upcoming Paris climate talks are actually about—except that few of the people who will meet inside the giant Le Bourget conference hall know it. Or if they do, they don’t talk about it. Someone should.

Photograph by Paul Sancya/AP.

Stephen Leahy is an international environmental journalist who has written for National Geographic, The Guardian (UK), London Sunday Times, New Scientist, Vice, The Toronto Star, Al Jazeera, and others. He is the senior science and environment correspondent for the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) and winner of the United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change and Environment Reporting. Stephen is author of the new book Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products. It recently won the 2015 Green Book Festival for science.