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Climate Emergency: How soon will Ireland's equitable, Paris-aligned, CO₂ emissions quota run out? [New ie-nets paper!]

posted Jul 8, 2019, 8:19 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Jul 14, 2019, 9:46 AM ]

Background: what is the problem?

The IE-NETs project is about investigating the potential for large scale deployment of "negative emissions", or "carbon dioxide removal", in Ireland, consistent with the Paris Agreement objectives. But why is this an issue of such critical societal importance? Simply because it has become starkly clear that, on a global level, there is now little or no atmospheric capacity left to "safely absorb" carbon dioxide (CO₂) pollution; and if — as now seems very likelywe collectively overshoot that level, then emergency measures to quickly achieve nett drawdown of CO₂ from atmosphere (removals exceeding emissions) will become urgently necessary.

By "safe" absorption of CO₂ into the atmosphere we mean having some reasonable chance of limiting global warming, and its associated deepening climate disruption, to a level where cascading collapse of global, and local, human civilisation can still be largely averted; indeed, ideally limiting to a CO₂ level where global humanity, and the wider biosphere, might still be able to flourish within the very real constraints of systemic planetary boundaries. We should however acknowledge that it is by no means certain that this is still feasible: and in such future scenarios, so-called "deep adaptation" responses may have to assume much greater priority; nonetheless, even from such perspectives, understanding the scope for achieving  nett drawdown of CO₂ (globally and locally) is still likely to be very relevant and important.

In any case, from this perspective of a finite, and rapidly dwindling atmospheric CO₂ capacity (the so-called Global Carbon Budget, or GCB), it is now a matter of central policy importance to understand how quickly this capacity will be exhausted. This is true at a global level, but, in the context of the "bottom up" architecture of the Paris Agreement, it is even more important to characterise this constraint at the level of the individual parties to that Agreement (where the capacity and responsibility for action actually lies). That is, we can, and should, ask what is the "fair share" of the remaining capacity for any given country to avail ofwhat we will here call the remaining "national carbon quota" or NCQ. The implication here is that continued nett emissions beyond the fair share NCQ will then carry a compelling ethical obligation to "clean up" or remove this (accumulating) excess before irreversible physical climate tipping points are triggered (i.e., within no more than a couple of further decades after the NCQ is exhausted). Formally, this is a good faith obligation to the other parties to the Paris Agreement; but properly, it should be seen as an obligation to all the people of the world, and most especially the young people of the world on whom the burden of discharging such "carbon debt" will be imposed.

The physical climate system is, of course, very complex. The dynamics of global human systems are even more complex; and the judgement of how much risk of cascading collapse dynamics might be tolerated is deeply value laden and highly contested. All these factors mean that it is not possible to assign an arbitrarily precise value even to the global-level GCB, never mind the even more contentious national fair shares or NCQs.  Nonetheless, it is still possible to quantitatively assess the range of plausible values both for the GCB and subsequently for the NCQ for any given country, within appropriately stated or argued parameters of prudence and equity. This is precisely what has been attempted, for the specific case of Ireland, in a new paper from the IE-NETs project, accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, as of 1st July 2019. We are delighted to say that, in accordance with the Springer Policy on self-archiving, the full text of the Authors' Accepted Manuscript (AAM) is now freely available as: Assessing Negative Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Perspective of a National ‘Fair Share’ of the Remaining Global Carbon Budget. (The final authenticated version will become available shortly, following publisher copy-editing, and subject to journal subscription access, at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11027-019-09881-6)


We present an assessment of the plausible Paris-aligned fair share nett cumulative carbon dioxide (CO₂) quota for an example nation state, the Republic of Ireland. By Paris-aligned we mean consistent with the Paris Agreement adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, at Paris, France in December 2015 (UNFCCC 2015). We compare and contrast this quota with both the aspirations expressed in the current Irish National Policy Position and current national emissions projections. The fair share quota is assessed as a maximum of c. 391 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO₂), equal to 83 tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO₂) per capita, from 2015, based on a precautionary estimate of the Global Carbon Budget (GCB) and specific interpretation of global equity. Given Ireland’s high current CO₂ per capita emissions rate, this would correspond to sustained year-on-year reductions in nett annual CO emissions of over ‑11% per year (beginning as of 2016). By contrast, the CO₂ mitigation target indicated in the National Policy Position corresponds to nett annual reduction rates in the range of only ‑4.7% per year (low ambition) up to a maximum of ‑8.3% per year (high ambition); and projections based on current and immediately planned mitigation measures indicate the possibility, instead, of sustained increases in emissions at a rate of the order of +0.7% per year. Accordingly, there is a large gap between Paris-aligned ambition and current political and policy reality on the ground; with a significant risk of early emergence of “CO₂ debt”, and tacit reliance on rapid deployment of currently speculative (at relevant scale and feasible cost) negative CO₂ emissions technologies to actively remove CO₂ from atmosphere. While the detailed policy situation will clearly differ from country to country, we suggest that this methodology, and its CO₂ debt framing, may be usefully applied in other individual countries or regions. We recommend that such framing be incorporated explicitly into global mitigation strategy via the statements of Nationally Determined Contributions required to be submitted and updated by all parties under the Paris Agreement processes.

Full-text access and citation

Update for the Irish Climate Action Plan 2019? Stay tuned...

Note that finalisation of this paper pre-dated the publication of a new Climate Action Plan by the Irish Government in June 2019, and that plan is therefore not considered explicitly in the paper. While the core findings (in relation to the estimation of a prudent, good-faith, Paris-aligned, national carbon quota) are not affected by this new plan, we will shortly release a further blog post update, specifically assessing the implications of the new plan for the early exhaustion of Ireland's NCQ, and the likely effect (if any) on the timing and scale of the emergence of national "carbon debt".