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  • Writer's pictureElena Bouldin

A Positive Narrative for the World’s Carbon Budget

February 24, 2022

A conversation with Dr. Josep Canadell, Chief Research Scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project.


Elena Bouldin: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today. I really appreciate it. I'd like you to tell me about the Global Carbon Project. What's its mission, and how does it go about pursuing that mission and accomplishing its goals?

Dr. Canadell: It’s important to understand that there's no formal global science. Science is national. And so what the Global Carbon Project and many other international organizations try to do is bring some level of coordination of science so that big science projects can be undertaken through coordination of national efforts. But at the end of the day, what gets funded is at the national level (unless we're talking about a big telescope or a particle accelerator where a formal multinational structure exists). Globally, there's the International Council of Science which tries to organize global science. And within that, there are dozens of projects doing all sorts of activities that involved coordination and good-will engagement across many countries.

The Global Carbon Project was established 20 years ago. There were multiple groups looking at the earth carbon cycle and how human activities are changing it, from an atmospheric perspective, oceans, land, and those doing inventories of greenhouse gases, without much cross interaction, sometimes given different estimates of the size of carbon sources and sinks. And so we realized that the carbon cycle, and particularly what's called now the perturbation of the carbon cycle by human activity, is what's leading to changes in the atmospheric composition and climate change. The information and knowledge was all over the place, there was no coordination. Not just that, we were not even agreeing on some fundamentals. So we said we have to actually bring all these groups together to really nail down and put together all the pieces of this humongous puzzle which is the carbon cycle to really understand what humans are doing to it and how it translates into climate change. During the nineties, we brought together all the people working on the terrestrial carbon cycle. And then we said, we need to go global, with all its components including oceans, atmosphere, and humans in it. Early in the 2000s, we launched the Global Carbon Project, to fundamentally say: we're going to bring together everybody, not just the biochemistry scientists, or the physical scientists, or the chemical scientists, but also the economists, who are looking into how we can actually support decarbonization pathways, and how we can estimate the remaining carbon budget, that is, how much more emissions we can emit before we reach a temperature goal of 1.5 degrees or two degrees as the United Nations Paris Agreement requires.


Dr. Canadell: We now put together a global budget for each of the main greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These are the three most important gases to basically solve the climate problem. We try to bring everyone who's doing measurements, looking at how much carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere from fossil fuels, how much carbon emissions are the result of deforestation, how much carbon goes deep into the oceans, how much carbon is uptake the forests and how much of it accumulates in the atmosphere.... And when we go to methane or nitrous oxide, it gets quite complicated because there are even more sources of emissions and chemical reactions in the atmosphere that destroy the methane... Some of these sources are natural, for example there's methane coming from wetlands, CO2 coming from the soils.... But then there is anything that we do ourselves, our human activities: combustion of fossil fuels, the cutting of forests, the landfills, which produce a lot of methane.... The list is very, very long. That's why these budgets are very complex and involve many people and disciplines of science. It is almost a report card of where we are. Every year we do it for carbon dioxide, and for the other gases, every two or three years because they're more complex. So we all take a stocktake of where we are, and when we know where we are with the current carbon budget that helps us estimate the remaining carbon budget.

Elena Bouldin: Do you explore different ways of compensating more of one emission with less of another to achieve the goal of 1.5 degrees??

Dr. Canadell: Yes. We want to stop at 1.5 degrees, so we have to determine how much more we can emit. You can emit more CO2, or less CO2, or more methane, less methane.... So it's kind of complicated. You can do more with one gas and less with the other. For instance, you can reduce carbon dioxide and even remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through whatever negative emission technologies exist (eg, machines that suck up CO2), or by planting trees, and then you could still emit some methane. And so all of this together helps us to provide what we call a remaining carbon budget, which is what can still be emitted before reaching a global temperature target. So this is the big big picture that we present every year at the UN conference of the parties. And of course, we contribute the science and data to the IPCC. We just finished this past year the sixth assessment for the Science of climate, Working Group I.

Elena Bouldin: How do you go about presenting your results and conclusions in a manner that you think is going to be most effective and clear for the general public, and for policymakers?

Dr. Canadell: Remember that the concept of remaining carbon budgets did not exist seven years ago, so this is a relatively new thing. We realized that there was almost a linear relationship between temperature increase and cumulative carbon dioxide emissions.. It was at this point that we realized that such a simple relationship was the most incredible thing that we discovered because makes easier to understand what needs to be done and we don’t need to focus on each of the many greenhouse gases that exist. Each gas has a different warming potential, their sources, their sinks. That's just a thousand things that should know in order to calculate the climate impact. But with this linear relationship between the cumulative CO2 emissions and increased temperature from pre-industrial, it's easier to make future projections to what we need to do and by how much. Synthetic greenhouse gases are the ones that come from industry, they are non-natural gases, and make the whole problem even more complicated. But the the simple carbon budgets, we can actually go to the government and say, "Look, you have 400 billion tons of CO2 that remain available in your quota. So, if you burn emissions at the level you're burning them, now you're going to burn the whole quota in 10 years. And if you rapidly slowdown emissions, you can make it last 20 years, or 30 years." And these simple statements have been incredibly powerful to understand what governments need to do collectively.

So the tool has been very powerful. One of the things that has come out of it is that, after 30 years, all of a sudden, we realize that there's so little quota left, we need to think about negative emissions technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That is, it is not enough to reduce and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Negative emissions is an invention that we had to do now because we realized that we're running out of quota too quickly. So we need to create a bigger quota. The way you create a bigger quota is by removing carbon dioxide so that you can emit more emissions or go slower in reducing emissions. We can go for longer and get our act together with the technology, the economics, and everything we need to do, for now we know for sure that carbon emissions really have to go to zero.

Dr. Canadell: Things have changed a lot in the last thirty years: there's all these decarbonization pathways that we now understand much better than in the 90s. And these carbon budgets and remaining carbon budgets help a lot to communicate the need for different ways to think about how we can decarbonize the global economy as quickly as required.

Of course, the next challenge we face is that this is like a cake, and we have to divide this cake among 200 countries to determine what the quota is for the U.S., versus the quota for Spain or the quota for Australia, for example. And of course, we can determine the remaining carbon budget mathematically, which we have done based on per capita emissions, population numbers, whatever, actual trends. But at the end of the day, these are things which are social and political because there is no way you can assign the same quota, or a quota based on population, to the U.S. versus, for instance, India. There's an issue of equity, an issue of enabling and supporting developing countries to really push their way out of poverty, which requires large amounts of energy. So it gets really complicated when you want to share that cake among the 200 countries and decide who gets a bigger piece and who gets a smaller piece. In the Convention of Climate Change, we made it clear (and it is actually part of the law within the Convention) that, of course, the developed world has to do their share, which is a much bigger share than countries where there's still need for quite a significant amount of development to reach minimum standards of living.

Elena Bouldin: Yeah, then you get into ecological debt: the countries that have created the problem should bear the biggest part of the solution. You've been talking about the carbon budget and explaining how big the "cake" is. What do you think would be the main points of intervention that may offer the biggest windows of opportunity for our human society to manage our emissions or just overall decrease our environmental impact and our contribution to climate change?

Dr. Canadell: If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have said "Well, we just don't know.There's various possibilities. There's no one path. There's no one technology. We must establish an economic system that rewards low carbon activity and whatever is cheaper will succeed." But at this point in 2022, we know that there's one thing that is a win win all over: we must electrify our economy as much as we can, as far as we can, and as fast as we can.

Ten years ago there was still some discussion: are we going hydrogen, or are we going electricity, for mobility? It is clear now that we may have hydrogen in the mobility sector, but clearly electrification is a no-brainer on all counts: economically, in terms of energy efficiency, and in terms of safety and quality of the mobility. Of course, I'm talking about clean energy electrification of the whole economy. What we're trying to do is move away from all fossil fuels that feed into the grid, and make that grid very, very big, so that it can actually do many more things than it is doing now. The grid is really good at providing electricity for lighting, for computers, for everything; but we want it to go into the whole mobility. We need a huge amount of new electricity for that, and we want all light industry to move into electrification as well. And it's a win win proposition because we know how cheap renewable energy is becoming. You would be crazy not to electrify, even just in economic terms. And by streaming all this energy through an electrification of the economy, you're making things just easier for everyone.

Now there's all these other components: from planes to long mobility, heavy mobility, heavy industry, the cement industry, the metallurgic steel industry. These are industrial sectors that consume enormous amounts of energy, mostly from coal, historically. These things are a little more complex, but there are already great ideas in research and development. Of course, hydrogen will likely play a role in it. And some sort of carbon capture storage can play a role too. But the biggest, and safest, and most straightforward single element on which we have become clear over the last ten to five years is trying to go for an electrification of the entire economy, and, of course, feeding the green electrons into that grid of renewable energy.

Elena Bouldin: Do geopolitical events, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, detract attention from the climate and environmental crisis, and make it all the more difficult to attain our goals of net zero emissions? How can we make sure these scientific efforts don't go back to the bottom of the pile in political agendas?

Dr. Canadell: I’d like to make two points here. Since you've chosen the example of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I would predict that, coming out of this conflict, there's going to be an acceleration of renewable energy and decarbonization in Europe. Why is that? Europe is very much dependent on Russia, and energy security was always one of the top priorities in Europe when Europe was discussing climate change. Becoming more independent was always the reason Europeans have led the climate change discussions in the world more consistently than any other region, which have been going back and forth on how strongly they feel about it. Linking now this event of Russia invading Ukraine to the broader aspect of energy security, I can say that, together with feeding people, energy security is the number one agenda item in every single nation in the world, so climate change is pushing a system by which all countries, poor and rich, will become more independent from an energy standpoint. This is an incredibly powerful force, and conflicts like this one between Russia and Ukraine now are reinforcing that this is the right way to go.

There's many other things that distract us: COVID has had a huge impact on the purses of countries, and therefore, there's discussion about how much we have slowed down our green investment, or whether, as countries, we're reinvesting enough, or whether we're missing a huge opportunity to really go hard on the green investment. And we had a really mixed pot of things coming from different countries, perhaps the most dramatic one being the climate change bill in the U.S., which is highly unlikely to be approved, but which allocates billions and billions of dollars to work on green energy. It's not that there are not enough sources of funding, but the U.S. is unlikely to pass it. So that's one point.

Dr. Canadell: The other point is that we have to come together and communicate clearly to the population of nations around the world that fighting climate change will lead us to a better world. Let me just put it very simply: When we propose that the economy needs to change, we don't mean to say: "Oh, I'm sorry, your parents had a great time traveling around the world, but you won't be able to" or "I'm sorry, you'll have to live in a very small apartment because we're going to change and downsize everything." We're actually saying: we won't have bigger houses, but we'll have a cleaner energy system, a safer one, a more independent one.

Electric mobility is a thousand times smarter than mobility with internal combustion engines. Actually, the mobility we're trying to deploy is more fun than driving one of those European clunkers with diesel engines that were sold all over Europe. We must look at all the components from land use, which we haven't discussed much here; we must look at our natural ecosystems to try to enhance their potential for carbon sequestration; we must look at the farming world, the agricultural world, which up tp now has been so intensive and carbon depleting in the soils; we must look at new management techniques that will bring carbon into the soil, but also fertility to the soil, because carbon comes with all nutrients.

The current practices are in place because we thought that they were cheaper and could go faster. But we're saying that we want to care about our environment and our landscapes in a better way. We want to bring back some of the carbon that we have lost very quickly in the last 200 years by using and abusing our natural systems. We want to restore many of the natural systems, which will bring carbon and therefore ameliorate the climate: by bringing more carbon, you bring more fertility, you bring the flora and fauna that belong in that place. It's all for the better. If you look at every single thing we're saying we need to do to decarbonize the world, the independent conclusion is that it's for the better. If I ask you, "do you want this car or that car, independently from climate change?" You'll say, "I'm taking the electric car,” or “I'm taking a nice landscape," right?

Up to now, we have created a narrative of crisis by saying that the whole thing is doomed, and that if we don't do something we're all going to die. I'd like to create a narrative that says, "here's an opportunity to accelerate things that probably would have happened anyway over the next few hundred years. We can do all this in 40 or 50 years, and everyone will benefit." Of course there are complex economics involved; of course we need to understand how the developed world can help the developing world. But we're all building a better planet and, up to now, we’ve chosen a negative narrative, not exclusively, but mostly. Countries around the world have chosen to sign in to this climate crisis emergency, which we probably needed to do. But imagine that we completely reverse the narrative and put a positive spin on it.

Elena Bouldin: That's the goal of One Blue Earth, to bring a positive light to the climate crisis. A lot of good work is being done, and we have to focus on it and promote it. If everybody is depressed, we're not going anywhere, that's not how we're going to solve our problems.

I wanted to ask you about planting trees because there's been this big popular movement in the past few years, and yet some people say it'd be more efficient to focus our efforts on conserving the trees we already have, because those are already a big sink for carbon, rather than trying to get new seedlings to start capturing carbon. Some people even claim the Earth may not even have space for a trillion new trees on the land surface. I wonder if you have any thoughts about all that.

Dr. Canadell: We do a lot of work on this, in part because of what you said. It's easier to sell a trillion tree program to the world than telling nations they really need to shut down as soon as they can all their coal power plants and a few natural gas plants. People get really excited, but it doesn't mean that it really translates into real stuff. I don't know if you recall, but, I think it was almost 10 years ago, perhaps it was the New York Declaration.... It already made the one trillion commitment, although it didn't call it that, but it was a huge declaration, and many countries signed it, and 10 years later we're inventing the whole thing again. Of course, there was the Berlin deal, and then the COP26, all of these big efforts and commitments to similar things.

Source: USC Dornsife

Dr. Canadell: From a global perspective, we have to focus and we cannot divert one single dollar from doing the transition from fossil fuel energy systems to a system of low or zero emissions, whether it involves removing and getting rid of all the fossil fuels, or whether we have enough carbon capture to still keep some. These are the fundamentals: you can plant a tree, but the tree is not equivalent to the emissions that we have. You can plant a tree to take a ton of CO2, but that's not exactly equivalent to the one ton of CO2 that you remove from hundreds of meters down into Earth and put in the atmosphere. The obvious reason, of course is that trees have a lifespan. At some point they will die off, they can burn, many things can happen. And so when we think about one to one, it is wrong.

What we need to do is stop emissions from the fossil reservoir going into the atmosphere because we know that that is very safe, and reduce the emissions as much as we can to almost zero. It is unlikely that we can get to zero and this is where the trees come in. So, for whatever we cannot do, what we don't know how to stop (for instance, NAFTA's oxide emissions from agriculture, or things for which we don't really have the technology ready to go and we don't think that we will have it any time soon), then you can actually think about compensating, offsetting all those emissions. For some of those emissions, maybe we know how to do it, but they're so ridiculously expensive to stop that maybe we can actually have programs of carbon uptake, either with machines that we're now inventing and which are very expensive, or with nature-based solutions. Because, of course, we have destroyed half the planet over the last 100 years, with agriculture and pasture. Surely we can try to do a better job at managing that and bring back some of the carbon and good ways of letting nature regenerate.

There was an analysis just done a couple of years ago that showed that more than half of all the programs of tree planting were done, not for regeneration of forests, but in plantation trees with the ultimate objective to use them. And you can say, “well, some carbon gets in the soil, and that's good. Maybe you can plant other trees if you use these. But the amount of carbon that you get with these plantings is just a small fraction of what we could get if we find areas in the world that have been heavily degraded and bring some of the carbon back to it.

So, in summary, we're very supportive of nature-based solutions and tree planting. Specifically, we're very supportive of regeneration, that is, regrouping and getting degraded lands back to where they were before degradation. With tree planting, we need to make sure that people have forestry intentions as a goal, but also understand that climate is changing in some parts of the world. You're in California, so you're aware of that, and here in Australia we're just burning trees. In 2019, we almost burned every single nature reserve we had where forests are in Australia. Seriously, I'm not sure how many national parks where there are forests were not burning. And there's plenty of NGOs in California looking at how to do these carbon offsets better. Many companies want to do it. You follow probably some of these things: Microsoft was really pushing massive investment, and they had to pull out because they were being criticized. You're not going to get your way to decarbonization through buying cheap carbon offsets in the tropics, in Amazonia or Indonesia, or whatever, and leve those countries without carbon offsets available for their own needed carbon offsets. They also have to go to net zero emissions.

We need to be very careful about how we manage this nature-based solutions. And just to finish, I'll say that what's attractive about a nature-based solution is that it's not just about climate, it is about many of the things which, as humans, we care about. So I'm all for analyzing carefully where we can make the most contributions through energy solutions, and particularly reforestation and tree planting. But very carefully, because we can actually get it wrong and we have now almost 20 years of experience of not getting it right. We need to sequester carbon for the next hundreds of years, not just for the life of a tree.

Elena Bouldin: I’d like to go a little bit back. You were talking about creating a positive narrative to help people understand where we are, and how we can move forward and address the problem. I've been looking through your reports on the Global Carbon Project's website, and I have to say they're very comprehensive and informative, but they're also accessible to someone who maybe is not a scientist, basically. How have you been sharing this content to try to spread this knowledge with your narrative?.

Dr. Canadell: The Global Carbon Project is a research group. We build on university research, national research centers. We're research focused and we try to interact with policymakers as much as we can, both in international negotiations and at the national leve, but we only have so much capacity, so Future Earth, our parent organization, works more on creating these narratives and spreading the word through forums where scientists usually don't go.


Dr. Canadell: There's many thousands of players in climate change. There's many top level NGOs that play an incredible role in reaching those forums, and we try to feed them with materials. As I said, Future Earth, as an umbrella organization, does a lot of these things. As you said, materials in our website are very comprehensive. We develop complex papers that can barely be read by scientists, because they're so boring! The reason we do that is because this stuff is now very important. Countries are spending billions of dollars, and more very soon. So we try to be transparent, and very rigorous, very traceable, so that if somebody challenged us by saying "why are you saying that wetlands are emitting so much methane?" we actually have traceability through all the analyses, all the models we use, all the data we use. And that's why we develop these papers, which we did not write ten years ago, because they are so dense.

We try to take the role of the scientist while still trying to package things so that people can use them. We make all the data available in multiple formats, multiple arenas, multiple ways. But we still don't play fully a role that many NGOs, and maybe you yourself, are trying to play by reaching out and translating everything down to ultimately create this narrative that we're just discussing. We cannot do everything. As I mentioned before, there is not a U.N. of science, there's no global science. There's associations of groups of scientists around the world that are trying to coordinate things, and do something bigger and better than their parts that cannot be created by any single top university in the world.

We just need to collaborate closer with those translators or communicators that are reaching more directly to the larger community and can have a direct influence on politicians, policies, and everything else. There's only so much scientists can do on their own within the realm of expertise and possibilities. At the end of the day, I have a job and I need to deliver on my job, which is on the science and on the scientific products we put out.

Elena Bouldin: Yeah, I believe that scientists should be more part of the government because they have the knowledge needed to face the situation we are in.

Dr. Canadell: And we are, we actually are. But again, there's 200 countries. We're not going country by country. Individuals are contributing to the Global Carbon Project. They do influence. I myself brief the Australian government a lot, actually multiple times a year. And we design research projects together, through CSIRO. So, yeah, CSIRO is a government organization. The science we develop is agreed between scientists and their capacities, and governments, not political agendas, but the technical agendas of governments.

For instance, now we have a net carbon emission target of 2050. So what kind of science needs to be done? We do a lot of these interactions, although that's still different from creating this broader positive narrative that presents the plan as “the opportunity we always wished we had."

Elena Bouldin: I could talk with you much longer, but I've already taken up so much of your time. This has been really interesting. I hope to hear more about what you're doing at CSIRO. Perhaps some other time! Thank you, again, for your time and kindness. A reveure!

Dr. Canadell: A reveure! Fins la propera! It's been a pleasure.


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