The UK's share of the global CO2 budget runs out in 2 years
The UK's per capita share of this global CO2 budget will run out in 2 years (at the start of 2026).
This timescale is very far from what UK citizens have been led to believe, so the calculations are set out here in detail so that readers can decide for themselves.
To stay within 1.5°C of global warming, immediate radical action is needed to phase out the burning of fossil fuels.
What is the CO2 budget?The CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels persists in the atmosphere for thousands of years - and so the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has been steadily rising for the last 150 years, since large scale burning of fossil fuels commenced - see document 52.
As the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, so does the average global temperature - see document 52. There is a scientific and international consensus that great efforts must be made to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
From the total amount of CO2 emitted by mankind in the past, and the effect it has had, we can estimate the limit to further emissions of CO2 if we are to keep global warming within a particular figure e.g. 1.5°C.
This is known as the CO2 budget (or carbon budget).
By comparing the CO2 budget with current annual CO2 emissions, we can calculate how long the budget will last if no changes are made. This indicates the degree of urgency of action.
The UK's CO2 budget for 1.5°CThe AR6 WG1 report  was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2021. (The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science relating to climate change.)
The report includes figures for the CO2 budget for limiting global warming to 1.5°C. The budget calculations had been updated slightly since the previous IPCC report of 2018, according to the further information available.
The calculationsThe mathematics are simple, but the conclusion of a timescale of 2 years is so far from what is generally being discussed that the calculations are set out here in detail, so that readers can decide for themselves.
1. The global CO2 budget to remain within 1.5°C of global warming with 67% confidence is given as 400 billion tonnes CO2 from the start of 2020. This is given in Table SPM.2 on page 38 of the IPCC report (reproduced here).
2. Dividing the 400 billion tonnes CO2 between the 8 billion world population gives 50 tonnes CO2 per person as a personal lifetime CO2 budget.
3. Since the UK's emissions are around 8 tonnes CO2 per person per year , the UK's per capita share of 50 tonnes CO2 will last for 6 years from January 2020, that is until the start of 2026 - just 2 years away.
Most people are either unaware or in denial about the severity and urgency of the climate emergency.
Why the 2-year timescale should be common knowledge
- It has been the scientific consensus for many years. There is much misinformation about climate change, but the mathematics of this calculation are simple and can be easily checked.
- The IPCC report of 2018  explained that "rapid and far-reaching transitions", taking just a few years would be needed.
- Other published CO2 budget calculations give similar conclusions (see below).
Confirmation from other sources on CO2 budgetsCUSP (Surrey University) report
The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at Surrey University (CUSP) has published a working paper Zero carbon sooner (updated 2021)  .
This also concludes (in its preferred analysis - see chart) that the UK's fair share of the remaining global CO2 budget will run out in 2 years - see the commentary at document 128.
2. The Tyndall Climate Centre reports:
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester published similar calculations in 2019 in reports for each UK local authority . For example, the report for Wirral Council  showed that annual cuts in emissions of 13% were needed (with the lack of action, faster cuts are now required). Figure 1 of the report ("Pathway projections for Wirral"), showing the rapid cuts, is reproduced here.
3. Carbon budget calculator https://carbonbudgetcalculator.com/
Why the 2-year timescale is not common knowledge
- UK Government fallacies (see document 106), including
- UK Government deliberate inaction and wrong actions giving a misleading impression
- building of new roads
- expansion of airports
- failure to start of programme of mass insulation
- self-censoring and misleading information by climate scientists and NGOs  e.g.
- Friends of the Earth - see document 139
- Ethical Consumer Magazine - see document 158
- Climate Emergency UK - see document 145.
- media failings
- lack of scrutiny of Government decisions
- failure to report poor Government decision making
- widespread climate urgency denial - see document 50
Alternatives to keeping within the UK's per capita share of the CO2 budget for 1.5°C.If we choose not to keep the UK's total emissions within its per capita share of the global CO2 budget for 1.5°C, there are other options. These all result in additional harm to vulnerable people. Options are
- aim to keep the UK's total emissions within its per capita share of the global CO2 budget for 1.6°C, rather than 1.5°C, or higher temperatures
- take more than the UK's per capita share - an approach often described as a repeat of colonialism.
The UK's CO2 budget for 1.6°C and higher temperaturesFor 1.6°C, the global CO2 budget is 150 billion tonnes more than the budget for 1.5°C. This will last the world an extra 4 years at the current global emission rate. The UK's per capita share will last an extra 2 years at its current emissions rate.
For higher temperatures, budgets increase in proportion, except that the risk of tipping points increases steadily.
Related documentsThe main points on this page have also been published:
- in the British Medical Journal (Sep 2021) UK's share of the global carbon budget will be used up in 3.3 years (letter) BMJ 2021;374:n2391 https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2391.full?ijkey=Hz5kDxh4kFos8jz&keytype=ref or at https://iancampbell.co.uk/files/bmj.n2391.full.pdf
- as a longer rapid response posted on the British Medical Journal website (Sep 2021) at https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n1734/rr-7
- as a blog on the website of Scientists for Global Responsibility (Sep 2021) at https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/uk-s-share-global-carbon-budget-will-be-used-just-over-3-years
|||IPCC (Aug 2021) AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis https://carbonindependent.org/files/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf (downloaded 21 Aug 2021) or https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/ https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf|
|||IPCC (Oct 2018) SR15 Summary for policymakers https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2018/07/SR15_SPM_version_stand_alone_LR.pdf|
|||Jackson T (2021) Zero Carbon Sooner: Revised case for an early zero carbon target for the UK. CUSP Working Paper No 29. Guildford: University of Surrey. https://cusp.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/WP-29-Zero-Carbon-Sooner-update.pdf|
|||Tyndall Centre (2019) The Tyndall carbon budget tool https://carbonbudget.manchester.ac.uk/reports/|
|||Tyndall Centre (2019) Setting Climate Commitments for Wirral https://carbonbudget.manchester.ac.uk/reports/E08000015/|
|||Turning delusion into climate action - Prof Kevin Anderson, an interview (2020) Responsible Science https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/turning-delusion-climate-action-prof-kevin-anderson-interview|
First published: 28 Sep 2021
Last updated: 6 Dec 2023