Skip main navigation

Peak Carbon and Decade of Action

Geologist, Alasdair Skelton, explains the concept of Peak Carbon and sets out what needs to done to solve the climate crisis in the Decade of Action.
Even sitting here in the middle of the Swedish forest, in a lake, surrounded by water- -the atmosphere around me has been contaminated by human beings. Even here, in this beautiful place, the signs of climate change is around me. They’re in the atmosphere, and in the air I’m breathing. Every third molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere around me- -comes from us human beings. This is the damage we’re doing to the atmosphere.
Let me tell you of two different years: 2019 and 2020. I’m going to call 2019 “peak carbon”. What I mean by that is by 2019, we had added 270 petagrams of carbon to the atmosphere. That causes global warming. We had also added 170 petagrams of carbon to the oceans- -which causes ocean acidification. In that one year, in 2019, we had added an additional four petagrams- -of carbon to the atmosphere, which weighs the same as 20 million jumbo jets. It’s the same as taking a blanket, 0.5 cm thick with the same atmosphere as on Venus- -which is is 96,5% carbon dioxide, and wrapping the Earth in that blanket. That’s what that means. That’s what 2019 and peak carbon means.
So why is that the peak? It has to be, it must be. We can never emit so much carbon to the atmosphere again- -because that carbon dioxide will lead to mass extinction. We have to stop, and we have to stop now.
By 2020 we had cut our emissions by 7% - a massive cut in emissions- -the largest cut that has ever happened. But 2020 was a very different year, yet 7% is about the right number. We have to reduce emissions with around 7% - every year! But I have missed out on climate justice - how does that work? Around 86% of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, is emitted by- - half of the world’s population. Which half? The rich half. The remaining 14 % is all that is emitted by the poorer half of the world. The poorer countries. The countries who have done the emissions are the ones who must take responsibility.
That extra 14% goes onto the load for the richer countries, which means- -we need to up our emissions reduction from 7% to almost 10% per year. That’s what we need to keep in mind when thinking about emission reduction- -and when we think about climate change solutions. That might seem enormously daunting, but before us we have excellent climate change solutions. Emission reduction must stand for 70% of the solution. Natural climate solutions, another 20% - that’s when we get nature’s help. Even today, we are already reliant on technical climate solutions for 10 %. For instance, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it in rocks.
But the technology is not advanced enough to do that on a large scale yet- -so let’s focus our attention on emission reduction and- -natural climate solutions, as we move forward to solve the climate crisis.

Surrounded by water and forest, geologist, Alasdair Skelton explains that the tell-tale signs of climate change are all around us. Every third molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere around us comes from human beings. He compares two years: 2019 and 2020.

He calls 2019 peak carbon. In one year alone, we added four petagrams of carbon to the atmosphere, equivalent to wrapping the Earth in a blanket, a half centimeter thick, of almost pure carbon dioxide (which can be likened to the atmosphere of Venus).

He explains that 2020 must be a turning point. In that one year, we cut our emissions by 7%1. This is largest cut in emissions that has ever happened. But 2020 was a very different year.

Taking climate justice into consideration, emissions reductions in richer countries need to be around 10% per year. This can be achieved by emissions reductions (standing for 70% of the solution), natural climate solutions2 (standing for 20% of the solution) and technical climate solutions3 (standing for 10% of the solution). Alasdair Skelton reflects on the risks of relying on technical solutions because these cannot yet be deployed at scale. He encourages focusing our attention on emissions reductions and natural climate solutions as we move forward to solve the climate crisis.

1 Le Quéré et al., 2020

2 The IPCC use the term nature-based solutions (NBS).

3 The IPCC refer specifically to carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to avoid confusion with solar geoengineer which is highly dangerous.

This article is from the free online

Taking on the Climate Crisis with Social Change

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now