• 08.03.16

This GIF Shows How Close We Are To Blowing The World’s Carbon Budget

If the goal is to limit climate change to 2 degrees, we don’t have much wiggle room left.

This GIF Shows How Close We Are To Blowing The World’s Carbon Budget

At the climate talks in Paris last fall, 175 countries agreed to limit global temperature rise to at least 2 degrees Celsius–and to aim for 1.5 degrees, a safer target. The only problem: The planet has already used up almost the entire amount of carbon it’s able to burn before those limits are surpassed.


To have a chance of keeping warming to 2 degrees, researchers have estimated that we can emit no more than a trillion tons of carbon dioxide. While that may sound enormous, we’ve already emitted more than 600 million tons, and we’re on track to hit 2 degrees in a few decades. We may pass the target for 1.5 degrees by 2025. A simple new GIF shows how we’ve blown through the trillion-ton budget since 1850.

The animation is part of a set of three. After Ed Hawkins designed a “climate spiral” earlier this year to visualize the rise in global temperatures–and it went viral–researchers decided to add two more charts. Along with the carbon budget, they have another chart that shows how the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has grown over the last 150-plus years as humans have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Australian-German Climate & Energy College were inspired to create the new animations after the success of the first temperature spiral.

“We wanted to give a step more insight into, hey, this is happening because of us,” says Malte Meinhausen, director at the Climate & Energy College. “It’s because of our carbon budget. And we’re eating up our carbon budget very fast. The point is very important to drive home again and again that it’s because of the fossil CO2 emissions.”

At this point, it’s very likely that we’ll go past 1.5 degrees. The current pledges countries made as part of the Paris Agreement don’t go far enough.

“That doesn’t mean that 1.5 degrees is necessarily lost,” says Meinhausen. “It just means that any emission thereafter has to be sucked out of the atmosphere. That can happen by biomass carbon capture and sequestration. It can happen by air capture and storage. But it’s going to be very hard and very costly. It’s a much better solution not to put the carbon in the air in the first place.”


Now, he says, countries should be focused on trying to build up renewable energy as quickly as possible. “It’s happening faster than many people thought it would happen even five years ago,” he says. “But that transition toward renewable energy is really key and can’t happen fast enough for the climate.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.