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Three scary numbers

Last week I came across three numbers that left me numb[1]. Together they brought home the essence of the climate fix we’re in — and the massive profit margins that are riding on us failing to deal with the challenge.

In essence it’s about the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere, and the handful of corporates who’re hoping like hell we aren’t able to kick our fossil fuel dependence (and lobbying their asses off in case we get too close).

The three numbers show that the amount of carbon dioxide we can still safely release into the atmosphere is dwarfed by the amount of carbon the top fossil-fuel companies already have on their books (in the form of oil reserves, for example) — and that number is dwarfed again by the amount of carbon that remains in all the earth’s fossil-fuel reserves.

Here are the three numbers at a glance:

  • The first is 500GT: the amount of carbon dioxide we can still safely release into the atmosphere before 2050. By “safely” I mean the amount we can let off and still keep within the goldilocks range of a 2-degree temperature rise.
  • The second number is 745GT: the amount of carbon that the top fossil-fuel companies (Shell, Exxon, etc) have in their oil, coal, and gas reserves, ready to be sold and burnt: already 50% more than we can safely use.
  • The third is 2 050GT: if we were to burn all the earth’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves, this is how much carbon we’d release — four times the amount we can safely use.

Basically fossil-fuel companies already have more reserves than what we can safely use. If they stopped exploring for new oil fields today, and sold off only what they’d already accounted for, we would still far exceed our carbon budget.

In other words, avoiding runaway climate change would require those companies to leave a large portion of their oil and coal reserves in the ground, unused and unsold.

If the opposite happens, if those companies are free to continue prospecting for new reserves, as they’re currently doing, we could theoretically blow our carbon budget four times over.

It all makes for a thoroughly disheartening picture: the business models of some of the world’s most powerful corporates are squarely at odds with planetary limits. And despite already having more oil, coal, and gas than we can safely burn, the likes of Shell are actively looking for more — take their recent accident-prone Arctic exploits for example.

Taking recent emission rates into account, we have roughly 13 years until we reach the limits of our carbon budget: after that we’re in the crimson red, forcefully pushing into the realm of runaway climate change.

And as this is happening, as these three numbers are sliding up and down, the profits of fossil-fuel companies keep climbing, and economists and policy makers applaud as our Jenga tower gets taller and taller: their eyes focussed on a completely different set of numbers, those preceded with fat dollar signs.

[1] The numbers and calculations in this post are all drawn from this infographic and the calculations for that graphic are all available here.


  • Mike is a young environmentalist. He is also very interested in issues relating to consumerism, consumption, and the capitalist system in Africa. Mike also has his a worm farm, rides a bike to work, and doesn't own a television. He loves reading, going for long runs, and is humbly learning to surf.