The Math of Climate Change: Visualizing Energy and Carbon Emissions

A lack of “energy literacy” is one of the challenges of building public support for action on climate change and for implementing climate action plans within government and business. We turn on the lights and how the energy gets to us and the impacts of that power generation are essentially invisible. Equally challenging and critically important is to convey the implications of atmospheric limits on carbon into simple concepts and language people can understand as they make decisions.

I recently attended an event with Bill McKibben in Boston, as part of his organization,’s national Do the Math tour. In my view, their new framing on how to present the math of climate change presents a clear and simple way of explaining our global energy predicament. (Their earlier approach focusing on the number 350 was not as clear. I spent five minutes trying to explain to my friend who is not as familiar with these issues what 350 parts per million means and she was still confused.)
This framing is written up in an article by McKibben in Rolling Stone called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. Here are the key numbers to understand:

  • 2o Celsius – The scientific and political consensus is that we cannot allow the global temperature to more than 2o C. This target was signed on in Copenhagen by 67 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. So far, global temperature has been raised 0.8 o C with significant implications of melting sea ice, more severe storms and droughts, etc.
  • 565 Gigatons – To stay within a 2 o C temperature rise, humans can emit more 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. If global carbon emissions keep growing at about 3% a year, we will reach this limit in 16 years.
  • 2,795 Gigatons – McKibben writes “this number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma.” 2,705 gigatons is the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of fossil-fuel companies and countries such as Venezuela or Kuwait. This means the amount of fossil fuel we currently plan to burn is five times higher than the 565 gigatons we can burn. On top of this, oil companies spend $100 million dollars a day exploring for new reserves.

Essentially, we need to keep 80% of proven fossil-fuel reserves in the ground.

Another tool for visualizing carbon emissions is called the Carbon Quilt, developed by Carbon Visualizations Ltd., whose mission is “to help people tell their own ‘carbon stories’ by making carbon dioxide visible in the most appropriate way.” On their web site, you can enter an amount of carbon dioxide and the on-line visualizer tool illustrates it as quilt patch extending over a proportional amount of land. Other images show a mountain of blue spheres rising up through the New York skyline with each representing one ton of CO2 and the total representing New York City’s annual carbon emissions.

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