CLIMATE STABILIZATION: Four Essential Principles

 Jean Arnold

These essential principles or imperatives can serve as guidelines for developing policy goals, strategies, and tactics that are relevant to the scope, scale, and urgency of the climate threat.

1. Reduce CO2 Levels: Keep Within the 2°C Emergency Pathway[1]

This is the overarching and organizing principle; the other three principles provide fundamental means towards staying within the 2°C heat limit. A warming of 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is widely considered the upper limit of warming more likely to avert the most dangerous climate change (although scientists warn us that even with a 2°C rise, conditions would be severe).

Nearly all nations have agreed to limit warming to 2°C (3.6°Farenheit), yet current binding treaties, pledges, and policies allow carbon burning to continue unabated. Our current trajectory would take us to 4°C to 6°C hotter. The global average temperature is already 0.9°C higher than in pre-industrial times. Another 0.9°C is inevitably coming, due to the persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere, which creates a time-lag warming effect. For a likelihood of staying under 2°C, annual CO2 equivalents must be reduced to 44 gigatons by 2020 or 14 percent below current levels.[2]

2. Carbon Price:  Internalize CO2's Societal and Environmental Costs

Carbon-fee-and-dividend is the central policy for achieving a comprehensive reduction of emissions. The initial fee and its incremental increase must be steep enough to quickly stimulate the phase out of carbon fuels and for renewable energy to become cost competitive. Revenue from the carbon fee is then distributed equally to citizens. Carbon will be priced at the source—the port, wellhead, or mine. Other incentives for the energy transition will complement the policy. It is essential that the US quickly enact an increasing price on carbon and take the lead in embracing the 2°C heat limit.

3. Carbon Budget: 80% of Fossil Fuel Reserves Stay in the Ground

We must phase out coal usage and leave buried the unconventional carbon fuels, such as tar sands and fracked shale gas, due to their extremely high greenhouse gas impacts. For an 80 percent chance of keeping temperatures under a 2°C rise, 80 percent of all remaining coal, oil, and gas must be kept buried, according to the Potsdam Institute.[3] That means our "carbon budget" is just 20% of remaining carbon fuel reserves (the remaining carbon that can be "spent" while keeping climate change from spiraling out of control). In spite of this, governments, corporations, and global markets are currently treating these remaining reserves as assets to be burned in the coming decades. 

4. Climate Justice: Global Poverty Must Be Lifted Through Low-Carbon Means

Development rights for the poorer nations must be considered in the remaining carbon budget. Industrialized nations must drastically cut their emissions, while providing massive assistance with low-carbon energy to lift the developing world from poverty. An equitable system, such as the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, must be employed to determine all nations' responsibilities for carbon reduction.[4] 

The poorest of global citizens need assistance for climate adaptations. They are least responsible for the situation, and yet suffer the most damage from climate impacts. A higher burden must be placed on the US as the biggest emissions contributor, and as the nation with the most resources to assist poor nations. Indeed, the US is legally bound to assist by international law, as a Party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty.[5] False climate solutions (shale gas, carbon sequestration, and carbon offsetting) must also be rigorously avoided.


[1] The phrase "Emergency Pathway" was coined by the Greenhouse Development Rights project to denote a highly constrained emissions budget with swift reductions. Paul Baer, Tom Athanasiou, and Sivan Kartha, A 350 ppm Emergency Pathway, Greenhouse Development Rights, November 23, 2009.

[2] The Emissions Gap Report 2012: A UNEP Synthesis Report, United Nations Environment Programme, November 2102, p. 1.

[3] Unburnable Carbon: Are the world's financial markets carrying a carbon bubble? Carbon Tracker Initiative. Also see: Bill McKibben, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012.

[4] Ria Voorhar and Lauri Myllyvirta, Point of No Return: The massive climate threats we must avoid, Greenpeace International, January 2013.

[4] Paul Baer, Tom Athanasiou, Sivan Kartha, and Eric Kemp-Benedict, The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework: The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World, EcoEquity, November, 2008. Greenhouse Development Rights is a fair and straightforward climate framework that supports an emergency climate mobilization to stay under a 2°C heat ceiling—while also preserving the rights of all people to reach a dignified level of sustainable human development, free of the privations of poverty. Nations' obligations are based on a combination of responsibility (contribution to the problem) and capacity (ability to pay).

[5] As a Party  to the UNFCCC Treaty, the US is obligated to contain greenhouse emissions to stabilize the climate. It bears a greater responsibility and capability to lead in combating climate change and its adverse effects. Developing nations that are particularly vulnerable to adverse climate effects are given special consideration.



CARBON PRICE: Fee-and-Dividend

CARBON BUDGET: Leave 80 Percent of Fossil Fuels Buried

CLIMATE JUSTICE: Dissolve Unequal Burdens