Research update

How carbon budgets can push policy towards net-zero

The remaining global carbon budget is a valuable concept that could be used to track progress against the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

To support national decision making on climate commitments, CONSTRAIN and University of Leeds researchers are developing a tool to directly translate global carbon budgets to the likely regional impacts of climate change. Bringing the potential impacts of climate change closer to home could lead to more ambitious national net-zero policies and a faster global transition to net-zero.

Carbon budgets or net-zero targets?

The amount of CO2 that the world can emit whilst limiting global warming to a certain temperature is known as a global carbon budget. Estimating the size of the budget is not easy, but it can provide a vital gauge of humanity’s progress in tackling the climate crisis.

On a national scale, carbon budgets are even more challenging, as they involve complex decisions, assumptions and negotiations about the proportion of the world’s emissions that a particular country has the right to emit.

A net-zero greenhouse gas target, in contrast, provides a definitive date by which a country will reduce its overall contribution to climate change to zero. Net-zero targets are being set with increasing frequency, helping to raise collective ambition and ensure that the burden of responding to climate change is shared fairly between nations.

If accompanied by interim emissions reduction targets, net-zero commitments can empower nations to play a leading role in taking urgent action to combat climate change.

Raising ambition

The researchers, including CONSTRAIN alumnus Chris Smith, are leading a programme of work on a new climate model – called FaIR – which they hope can help them achieve two things. Firstly, improving estimates of the global carbon budget, to give a clearer picture of how much carbon can be emitted whilst still avoiding dangerous climate change.

And secondly, producing a ‘global warming impact scale’, a tool to help decision makers from different regions of the world to understand the climate impacts they are likely to experience based on different global emissions scenarios.

Pretty town in Germany under water with floods up to the ground floor windows

Professor Piers Forster, who leads the CONSTRAIN project, said: “Global temperatures have already risen by over 1°C, and are continuing to rise by around 0.2°C per decade. As a result, many countries are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, especially in the Global South.

“This new tool will help decision makers understand the likely climate impacts their countries will experience in future from different emissions pathways. We hope our research can lead to more ambitious net-zero targets, as the reality of climate change is brought closer to home.”

Instead of trying to fairly apportion a dwindling remaining carbon budget, researchers recommend that national policies focus on reaching net-zero emissions as quickly and fairly as possible, whilst helping to avoid, and building resilience to, climate impacts such as heatwaves, droughts or flooding.

What next?

  • The FaIR model will be used to improve estimates of the remaining global carbon budget, taking accounting of the effects of greenhouse gases such as methane, which are not typically included in calculations.
  • A ‘global warming impact scale’ tool will be designed, combining the global carbon budget with research on expected regional climate impacts.
  • This tool will be made available to policy makers to help support national decisions on mitigation, adaptation and net-zero targets.