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Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law

Professor Chris Wold: Living within our Carbon Budget

October 18, 2013

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Last week we learned that temperatures are increasing faster than a decade ago, seas are rising faster than a decade ago, and extreme weather events are becoming more commonplace. Mountain pine beetles are devastating western forests in Canada and the United States because they can now survive during warmer winters. Polar bears, already threatened with extinction, continue to lose their habitat as polar ice disappears. All this is happening with just a 1.5 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature.

 But it gets worse. According to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have already spent half of our carbon budget if we want to keep temperatures from rising another 2 degrees Fahrenheit. If we don’t curb our growing appetite for fossil fuels, we will consume our remaining carbon budget in just 15 years.

 Our failure to go on a carbon diet is likely to cause irreversible changes to the world we live in. Temperatures could increase by another 5 or 6 degrees, heat waves will become more frequent, sea levels may rise by 3 feet, and Oregonians may face drinking water shortages as our winter snow pack shrinks.

 We can, of course, avoid these profound changes. About 40% of global warming is caused by emissions that can be removed from the environment within days or years. Ground-level ozone, better known as smog, has an atmospheric lifetime of just 4 to 18 days, but its global warming impact is about 20 percent of that caused by carbon dioxide. Black carbon, essentially soot, has a lifetime of perhaps 8 days but packs a powerful climate punch.

 The good news is that we already have technologies and strategies to reduce these emissions significantly. Filters could eliminate 99% of black carbon from existing heavy-duty trucks. We can reduce smog and methane — a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — from livestock, as is being done at Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman.

 Even if one doubts the IPCC that climate change is “unequivocal” and that human greenhouse gas emissions are “extremely likely” to be the “dominant cause” of higher temperatures, actions to reduce soot and smog will have important societal benefits. Reducing soot and smog will decrease respiratory and other serious human health impacts, increase agricultural yields, and reduce damage — and insurance premiums — from more extreme weather events. These actions will also buy us some time to rebuild our energy infrastructure.

 But we need political will to stop bingeing on carbon and other greenhouse gases. We need to say no to liquefied natural gas export facilities along the Columbia River, the Oregon coast, and elsewhere. We need to say no to coal exports to China from the Port of Morrow. These are the types of infrastructure investments in fossil fuels that will certainly push us beyond our carbon budget. Living within our budget should be exactly the kind of conservative cause that both Republicans and Democrats can support.


 Chris Wold is a Professor of Law and Director of the International Environmental Law Project at Lewis & Clark Law School. He is also the co-author of Climate Change and the Law and provides legal advice to governments and environmental organizations in the climate change negotiations.