Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

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Paying Off Our Carbon Debt
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By Marcus Thomson/NCEAS

The recent extreme heat in the Western United States and Canada may seem remarkable now, but events like these are made more likely, and more severe, under climate change. The consequences are likely to be far-reaching, with overwhelmingly negative impacts on land and ocean ecosystems, biodiversity, food production and the built environment.

“The main lever we have to slow global warming is the rate at which CO2 is added to the atmosphere,” said Marcus Thomson, a postdoctoral scholar at the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara. Thomson is a co-author of a research article just published in Nature that presents a scheme to slow global warming by tying CO2 emissions to carbon removal obligations.

In spite of several high-profile attempts to limit emissions caused by human activities over the past several decades, atmospheric carbon dioxide has continued to rise steadily. If this trend continues, sufficient CO2 will be added to the atmosphere — the “remaining carbon budget” will be depleted — in about a decade to raise the long-term average global temperature by 1.5°C. That in turn raises the likelihood of dangerous and irreversible socioeconomic and ecological damage.

The most recent attempt to cooperatively limit global greenhouse gas emissions was COP21 in 2015, which resulted in the “Paris Agreement”, an international treaty that has been in force since. Under the Paris Agreement, individual countries pledge to reduce their emissions in order to keep global warming to no more than +1.5°C and “well below” 2°C. For the Paris Agreement to have any hope of succeeding, and for dangerous global warming to be avoided, it will be necessary to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, in addition to limiting emissions. Technically, once the remaining carbon budget is depleted, for every ton of CO2 added to the atmosphere, it will be necessary to remove a ton of CO2 later this century.

In other words, the researchers assert, should emissions continue after the carbon budget is depleted — which seems likely — the budget will go negative, and we will begin accruing a carbon debt. The greater this carbon debt grows, the faster and more dramatically the climate will change — it will become a more difficult problem to fix. This assumption is already baked into the net-zero pledges that countries have made. However, these pledges are still insufficient. There remains no uniform global strategy for national and sub-national governments, public organizations and private companies to get behind to pay down this carbon debt. This raises the risk that future generations will be unfairly burdened with massive debt, and challenges any long-term strategy to limit warming to +1.5°C. In short, in spite of near universal agreement on the need to achieve net-zero emissions, there remains a significant challenge to operationalize concerted action.

Before It’s Too Late

In their article, the researchers argue that to assure the viability of a future net-negative carbon economy, funds for future carbon debt repayment ought to be collected through a carbon pricing scheme before and while carbon debt is accrued. As lead author Johannes Bednar, a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and a Ph.D. student at Oxford University explained, “Economic logic dictates that the latest possible time to start doing that is [the moment] when the carbon budget becomes depleted.”

In the case of an idealized global emissions trading scheme, emission caps become more stringent as the carbon budget is depleted. For existing schemes, like that used by the European Union, this would mean reducing the quantity of currently scheduled emissions allowances. This risks making the whole scheme economically and politically untenable. The reduced number of allowances would, however, be compensated by Carbon Removal Obligations (CROs), obligating emitters to remove an equivalent quantity of CO2 in the future instead of paying a carbon price now, which may be insufficient to compensate for the eventual cost of warming. In the plan, carbon debt would be managed through CROs which establish legal responsibility for carbon debt repayment.

“We needed a scheme that would be resilient to future interference in its primary goal, which is to decarbonize the environment, yet still be as simple as possible,” Thomson said. “CROs work within the existing and foreseeable regulatory environment, and should also be appealing for capital markets. We started with the germ of an idea and worked it through collaboratively. Johannes developed a rigorous proof of concept model, and then pulled everything together beautifully.”

Emission trading schemes backed by CROs carry the risk of default by debtors. The authors propose that the latter be addressed by treating carbon debt like financial debt, and by imposing interest on carbon debt. Interest payments would be treated as a rental fee for temporarily storing CO2 in the atmosphere. Additionally, making CROs tradable assets facilitates the de-risking of intertemporal carbon markets.

The proposal resolves some of the inconsistencies in the current academic understanding of scenarios as well as foreseeable failures in climate policy over the long term. Instead of burdening future generations with excessive debt, CROs imply a more equitable distribution of financial flows and costs over time. Moreover, in climate mitigation scenarios, a larger portfolio of CO2 removal technologies usually goes hand in hand with increased carbon debt and therefore a greater reliance on CO2 removal in the future.

“CROs completely change how we see [carbon dioxide removals], from magical tools to enable a 30 year long period of the ‘grand atmospheric restoration project’ to a technology option that is developed and tested today and flexibly and more incrementally scaled throughout the 21st century and possibly beyond,” noted study co-author Michael Obersteiner, director of the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University and a senior research scholar at IIASA.

With CROs in place, carbon debt is penalized through interest payments. Should CROs be rolled out rapidly, the interest on carbon debt would incentivize large-scale near-term CO2 removal on top of conventional emission reductions. This would help to minimize carbon debt and its associated risks, and consequently facilitate a more rapid path to net-zero than scheduled by most countries.

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a-1626900696 Jul 21, 2021 01:51 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Yes, because taxation is a good tool to curb bad behavior. But, there will always be people who remain belligerently ignorant, despite deadly consequences, so we'll also need lots of fines, regulation, and enforcement.

Sail380 Jul 21, 2021 02:41 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Yes a new tax that will only make politicians richer. Wont help the average world citizen.

a-1626903859 Jul 21, 2021 02:44 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Only if that average world citizen doesn't care whether the world remains habitable for humans.

Sail380 Jul 21, 2021 02:50 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

The tax won't effect the offenders bottom line. The cost is just past on to the consumer.

a-1626905695 Jul 21, 2021 03:14 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

That's OK. It will result in smarter consumers. BTW, it's "offender's", "affect", and "passed".

Sail380 Jul 21, 2021 03:22 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

sooo sorry. Made my millions in developing real estate. not worried about spelling, keep up the good fight!!!

Byzantium Jul 21, 2021 01:25 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

If they are trying to turn off the natural progression coming out of the last Ice Age from, do they also know how to stop global cooling if they go too far and kick us back into another IceAge? The Goldilocks Syndrome - what is bad for some is good for others. Who gets to decide what is "just right" for everyone on the entire planet?

MarcelK Jul 21, 2021 01:35 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

"natural progression"? What's the causal mechanism for that? (Whatever you say, I know it will be wrong.) 350 ppm of CO2 wouldn't be "just right", but anything higher than that is dangerous.

a-1626900208 Jul 21, 2021 01:43 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

We've been working hard for centuries, pooping in our nest, to mess up your fictional Goldilocks conditions.

the_jjb Jul 22, 2021 08:37 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

If you believe actions we take can alter the climate to make it too cool, then you must also believe that actions we take can alter the climate to make it too hot. You are absolutely correct! We can take actions to alter the climate, but so far the only ones we have taken cause warming. And those actions are global, accumulate over decades, and very, very difficult to slow down. If we all work together it will still take a hundred years to get back to the level of natural progression. If we don't take action, the climate will continue to accelerate towards global tropical weather with complete destruction of our temperate forests and agriculture.

Humanitarian2003 Jul 21, 2021 01:43 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

While we're at it, why not make manufacturers responsible for developing packaging for their products that is 100% recyclable? If the package could not be easily recycled, the product could not be sold.

oops Jul 21, 2021 01:44 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

maybe try starting with China - the top producing polluter on the planet.

FernaldPoint93108 Jul 21, 2021 03:37 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

0752: China now accounts for 27 percent of global emissions, while the U.S. accounts for 11 percent.

a-1626907212 Jul 21, 2021 03:40 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

And they are doing a lot more than we are to curb emissions, because they know it's a matter of survival in the long run. We're getting better lately, though.

PitMix Jul 21, 2021 04:05 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

FERN , as of 2019, the US was at 410 billion metric tonnes of CO2, and China was at 219 billion. Do we get a pass just because we are not the worst CURRENT emitter? Isn't it the total in the atmosphere that counts? Imagine the screams if most of us were poor and trying to live like 1st world people and they told us we had to reduce our emissions!

Channelfog Jul 22, 2021 08:29 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Packaging IS a huge issue as the petro industry sees plastics as their future as we reduce fossil burning. It is they who created the bogus triangular "recycling" labels, of which only #1 and #2 are recyclable. "Biodegradable plastic bags" break down into tiny bits of plastic, but it is still plastic in the environment. We need truly biodegradable packaging, or better yet, reusable packaging. It has been challenging getting consumers to take bags to the store, further to get them to take a jug for bulk olive oil or juices. The retu rnable glass beer bottling equipment we once had still works Mexico. We learn then we forget.

dukemunson Jul 22, 2021 08:37 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

The European model for recycling bottles seems to work pretty well… it’s a big cash deposit (and return) for each carsleberg 12 pack you bring back to the convenient recycling spot. 5 and 10 cents for cans and bottles just isn’t a worthwhile amount for most people to bother.

As for packaging, it’s all about Amazon. Just a silly amount of “packaging materials” in every box.

Thomas John Jul 22, 2021 11:25 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

In 2019 metric tones per capita USA - 18.44
metric tones per capita China 8.87.

Byzantium Jul 22, 2021 04:52 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Per capita metric ton production is a very deceptive way to view this - 300 million in the US - 1.3 billion in China. They would fall under lying with statistics since this is allegedly a global concern; not one that stays in neat little national borders.

a-1626901281 Jul 21, 2021 02:01 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

This article is going to bring the usual motley crew of science deniers out from under their rocks. You can preview all of the false statements they will make at:

Expect totally lame stuff like "it's natural", "it's the Sun", and "it's water vapor".

Chip of SB Jul 21, 2021 03:00 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Yes, 2:01, the science is righteous and undeniable, because that’s how science works. Mother Gaia will punish us all for the collective sin of humanity unless we implement a convoluted tax and regulatory scheme to help restore the feudal system.

a-1626905796 Jul 21, 2021 03:16 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Why, of course! Science supported by overwhelming data is always questionable when you think that any old opinion is a correct one.

ChillinGrillin Jul 21, 2021 03:55 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Came here to laugh at the irrational science deniers. Wasn't disappointed.

Babycakes Jul 21, 2021 04:18 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

All of this to distract you from the current Administration pushing yet another oil pipeline from Russia to Germany. Is anyone paying attention or are you worried about mask mandates? LOL!!!

a-1626911634 Jul 21, 2021 04:53 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Um, it's not an oil pipeline, and the administration was pushing for limits that would preclude Russia using the pipeline to influence EU politics. But, hey. Who cares about facts?

dukemunson Jul 21, 2021 06:20 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

453pm - and they got virtually no limits in the deal over the NATURAL GAS pipeline… so what’s your point exactly? Russia literally now has more power to influence EU politics… where were you going with this response??? Was the error of oil instead of natural gas such a win that you wanted to tout facts when essentially no limits were put in place ?

FernaldPoint93108 Jul 21, 2021 04:37 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Here is some science: the historical carbon dioxide record from the Vostok Ice Core suggests that global warming causes CO2 to rise, not the other way around.

a-1626911556 Jul 21, 2021 04:52 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Myth #12 CO2 Lags Temperature:

FernaldPoint93108 Jul 21, 2021 07:49 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

That article says the data suggests a natural temperature rise results in more CO2 then CO2 in turn causes a temperature rise, and so forth, in a natural feedback loop. I believe this is what we are in now: a natural dance between temperature and CO2, all started by a natural temperature rise.

a-1626936751 Jul 21, 2021 11:52 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Nope, you're mistaken. The huge accelleration in the amount of CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is definitely anthropogenic.

Myth #56 It's a Natural Cycle

PitMix Jul 22, 2021 07:46 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Isn't FERN's opinion more important than actual facts? Unfortunately, by the time he is definitively proved wrong, a lot of people will be dead.

MarcelK Jul 22, 2021 11:01 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

"Here is some science" says someone who has no idea what science is. "the historical carbon dioxide record from the Vostok Ice Core suggests that global warming causes CO2 to rise, not the other way around" -- that's not science, it's a climate science denier talking point that is completely contrary to what science actually has shown. "That article says the data suggests a natural temperature rise results in more CO2 then CO2 in turn causes a temperature rise, and so forth, in a natural feedback loop" -- um, no, it doesn't. " I believe this is what we are in now: a natural dance between temperature and CO2, all started by a natural temperature rise" -- what you believe is a) factually incorrect, and b) irrelevant. "I disagree" -- that actually makes it more likely to be correct. BTW, your claim that it's a feedback loop contradicts your original claim about the Vostok Ice Core, but obviously that doesn't matter because the goal is to deny human-caused global warming, not to seek the truth.

MarcelK Jul 22, 2021 11:07 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

He has already been definitively proved wrong. I think what you mean is "by the time he comes around to agreeing", but there's no reason to think that will ever happen. And "lots" is relative ... thousands have already died of AGW-related causes, but we're heading towards billions.

Gregoreo Jul 21, 2021 05:57 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Hmm reminds me of that whole carbon offset scam where you pay some shady folks a few bucks to not feel guilty for drinking starbucks coffee.

PitMix Jul 22, 2021 10:05 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Yes it is an imperfect system developed by an imperfect species. But what is the alternative, do nothing and wait until it is our turn to be hit with a climate disaster? Or wait for a pandemic with a 50% fatality rate?

dukemunson Jul 22, 2021 12:21 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

And left wing ideology creates just as much ignorance and dishonest blather. A shift to the center is what we all desperately need...the vocal edges of both parties are dishonest and insane.

Byzantium Jul 22, 2021 01:16 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

The alternative is speak the truth and take the politics out of the agenda. Hasn't yet happened. Either - truth or politics-free. So we are left with insults, identity politics and labeling in the race for power and control. That is how "climate change" is viewed from the outside ,looking into this partisan agenda.

Chip of SB Jul 22, 2021 11:26 AM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

I think it is important to keep a big picture perspective when it comes to protecting the environment. So much emphasis is being put on CO2 that it’s easy to lose sight of other far greater environmental perils. Here is a good example of that. In order to obtain the rare earth minerals necessary for manufacturing batteries, companies are gearing up to scrape vast swaths of the oven floor. Many environmentalists are concerned about this, but most people will only hear about how these endeavors to extract the mineral wealth of the ocean will help reduce CO2 emissions.

MarcelK Jul 22, 2021 01:17 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

I think it's important to deal with existential threats that are very difficult to address, and ignore intellectually dishonest deflecters.

MarcelK Jul 22, 2021 01:19 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

Read the whole article, not just the title:

LCP112233 Jul 22, 2021 01:21 PM
Paying Off Our Carbon Debt

"Ocean floor" I saw that too Chip. Raping our ocean floors for their battery powered everything. Hypocrites. No forethought what-so-ever. Wait until it comes to disposing of all these batteries. I see a potential problem.


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