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Let’s REALLY Do The Math Part 3: California + Math = Size Matters

by Paulina

In Part 1: Counting What Counts, I claimed that the entrenchedness that prevents us from starting from what we want, rather than from what (we think) we’re trapped in, is “fractal.” It is.

If you agree the US 2020 carbon target shows the need for a cumulative carbon budget that’s accountable to the amount of carbon dioxide we want in the atmosphere, you’ll savor the added twist of the California target we’re going to look at in this post.

The Do the Math campaign compares the global carbon budget with the fossil carbon pools (reserves of fossil fuels) already on the books around the world. The point of the comparison is that we have a lot more fossil carbon than we can burn, given our commitment to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system.

Let’s have a look at what happens when we don’t use a cumulative carbon budget and instead try to compare the size of a newly “added” fossil carbon pool to the size of estimated emissions reductions. It’s an interesting and clear example of the perils of the entrenched carbon emissions vantage point, that of “emissions reduction targets.”

California has determined a projected “baseline” 507 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (507 MMtCO2e) for 2020. Meanwhile, California law calls for emissions to be reduced to 427 MMtCO2e, by 2020 (this is equivalent to the estimated 1990 California emissions). The “challenge,” according to this vantage point, is one of closing an 80 MMtCO2e “gap.” Meanwhile, a huge “new” pool of carbon has been deemed recoverable under the surface of California: 15 billion barrels of shale oil. Our “507 minus 427” vantage point might tempt us to gauge the size of this carbon pool in terms of the gap to be closed and lead us to conclude that adding that carbon pool to the atmosphere is equivalent to delaying implementing our 2020 target by 80 years. (15 billion barrels ≈ 6.4 billion tons of CO2; 6.4 billion / 80 million = 80 “years.”)

But what if the 2020 “baseline” were instead 600 or 700 MMtCO2e — i.e., suppose we’re starting from a worse place in 2020. Suddenly, the California 15 billion-barrel carbon pool would seem smaller. If the 2020 “baseline” were, say, 627 MMtCO2e, we’d need a “200-value combo pack” of measures, instead of an “80-pack,” to close the 2020 gap between the baseline (627) and the  California AB32 target (427). So, the oil would “only” “set us back” 32 years (6.5 billion/200 million = 32) instead of 80!

Our vantage point and frame of comparison make it seem as though the California oil wouldn’t be AS big an extra amount of carbon, if only we were emitting more in 2020…


Meanwhile, in the real world, the oil would of course loom even larger in that case, because of the tougher place from where we’re starting.

(Barring the possibility that a world in which we had the ambition to close such a much larger gap would be a much better place to start from…)

Analogously, suppose we were targeting an arguably much more appropriate roughly 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, i.e., say, 307 MMtCO2e, starting from the official 507 baseline? Again, we would need a “200-pack,” making the CA oil worth about “32” again, measured in “AB32 years,” rather than the original 80.

Once again, the tougher our challenge, the less of a problem the oil seems to be, even though, in reality, the oil is instead more of a problem, the greater our 2020 ambitions.

The entrenched view that starts from our BAU pollution – our patient on the gurney — and uses this as the frame of reference is as absurd as a healthcare system that incentivizes ill health.

But Californians – and the rest of us — have access to a much less entrenched vantage point, one that’s a much more helpful guide, if we’re willing to break some new ground.

We can really do the math and start thinking in terms of cumulative carbon budgets.

Notice that the more ambitious our cumulative carbon budget, the larger the California carbon pool looms : the cumulative carbon budget vantage point matches reality, always a good sign.

We need to think about emissions from the bottom up, not from the top down, so to speak (I realize this is an idiosyncratic use of “bottom up” and “top down”):

Bottom up (cartwheels):

If we do such and thus, how much will we be emitting?

Man vill bara hjula!
Here, the “such and thus” correspond to our positive vision of the communities we want to build or transform, as if we were planning healthy communities for the people we love.

Top down (gurney view):

If we do such and thus, how much will we be reducing emissions based on a quasi-BAU, imaginary, counter-intuitive, and counter-productive, projected “baseline”?

Here, the “such and thus” correspond to incremental modifications of the business-as-usual we think we’re stuck in, even though business as usual is a lie.

Let’s REALLY Do The Math: Part 1 Part 2 (Bonus part, coming soon!)

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