Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Bursting the carbon bubble
15 Feb 2013

AT 2PM last Tuesday, in San Francisco's city hall the regular council meeting was called to order as usual. But councillor John Avalos proposed a decidedly irregular resolution: the city's retirement fund should withdraw its money from fossil fuels. ''San Francisco has aggressive goals to address climate change,'' he said. ''It's important that we apply these same values when we decide how to invest our funds.''

Avalos isn't the first official to say so. In December, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn declared that the city's cash balances-the $US1.4 billion it uses to manage its daily operations-would no longer be invested in fossil fuel stocks. He also wrote to the city pension fund, which counts Exxon-Mobil and Chevron among its major holdings, requesting it do the same.

The deliberations in the two west coast cities made a media splash, adding momentum to America's fastest growing social movement: ''Go Fossil Free'', a nation-wide blitz calling for universities, governments and churches to freeze new investments in fossil fuel assets, and to sell what they've already got.

The impetus for the campaign is a set of simple numbers-a global carbon budget. It's a way of framing the climate crisis that is now uniting student activists and market analysts. The former use the numbers to prosecute a moral case that the fossil fuel industry has gone rogue; the latter, for a cold-blooded calculation that trading away from carbon-heavy assets is in an investor's own interest.

The numbers were set out in a report called ''Unburnable Carbon'', which was released last year by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a group of analysts and environmentalists in the UK. It highlighted the work of the Potsdam Climate Institute, which in 2009 produced a set of emissions scenarios together with their likely influence on global temperatures.

These are the numbers: for a low chance-one-in-five-of exceeding 2° warming, we can only emit another 565 Gt of CO₂ by mid-century. But proven fossil fuel reserves (held by listed corporations, private companies and nation states) equate to 2795 Gt-five times the carbon budget. In Copenhagen in 2009, the world's governments agreed to limit warming to 2°. To do so, four-fifths of our fuel must stay in the ground.