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This graphic shows exactly how little is left of the planet’s carbon budget

The bucket is almost full. We have 9% of our global carbon budget left.

This graphic shows exactly how little is left of the planet’s carbon budget
[Source Image: xxllxx/iStock]

When scientists warn that we’ve almost reached our global carbon emissions budget—and that if we don’t start reducing emissions we’ll see catastrophic effects of climate change—it sounds dire for sure, but it can also be hard to grasp. What does that even mean? How much have carbon emissions really increased in recent decades? This new animated graphic puts it into perspective, and it’s a stark visual of how close we are to reaching a tipping point.

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The graphic shows our atmosphere as a bucket, representing the limited amount of greenhouse gases it can hold before we reach that 1.5 degrees of warming benchmark. Beginning in 1870, emissions are a drop in that bucket, but as the years increase, so do the carbon emissions, and at a faster and faster rate. Those emissions are color coded by country, so we can see just how much carbon output the United States, China, India, and the European Union are responsible for, compared to all the rest of the countries in the world. Those regions were the focus, explains Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, because collectively they are responsible for more than half of all global CO2 pollution.

Once the animation gets to 2019, we see that the bucket is almost full; we have 9% of our global carbon budget left. That’s about 10 years at our current emission rates.

Jackson created the graphic along with Alistair Scrutton and Jerker Lokrantz of Future Earth, an international research program with the goal of building knowledge around the environment and climate change. This animation was released at the end of the United Nations’ COP25 climate conference; they had released one at the beginning of the conference as well that showed the trajectory of fossil fuel emissions over the past 50 years.

“I wanted to go back further in time, [have] the date begin in 1870 and end today, and I wanted to illustrate the responsibility for cumulative emissions—which countries have placed most of the pollution in the atmosphere,” he says. “More importantly, I hope to show the speed, the pace, with which emissions have increased. I think that’s where this video really resonated with people.”

The bucket analogy is one that Jackson uses in class; another common one is the idea of our atmosphere as a bathtub and greenhouse gas emissions as constantly running faucets filling it up. “It’s a way of getting people to think about the finite quality. Everyone understands what happens when you overfill a bucket: bad things happen,” he says. “It’s a simple way of illustrating that the atmosphere has a finite capability to hold greenhouse gasses before bad things happen.”

There’s some good news: The rate at which carbon emissions grew dropped this year. But there’s also a lot of bad news: 2019 still saw a record number of greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere. That’s why it can be frustrating to talk about growth rates, Jackson says, when the issue is really about the sheer volume of greenhouse gas emissions, something he hopes this visual highlights. It’s already been shared by Greta Thunberg on Twitter, and Jackson hopes this simple graphic—a tool he admits the science world doesn’t use enough— will resonate with even more people.

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