The term “time value of carbon” is not used much, but it is important for understanding the concepts of embodied or primary carbon emissions we’re talking about here at Treehugger. That’s why a tweet from climate scientist Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of the Drawdown Project caught my attention:
As we noted before in “Every ounce of carbon dioxide emissions add to global warming,” emissions are cumulative. This is why primary carbon emissions are so important – they are happening now and are in conflict with the carbon budget ceiling that is decreasing every day.
And we have to stop thinking of this only in terms of buildings; It is present in everything we make and use.
We will need to do everything we can to halve emissions within this decade. This means no more waiting. No more delay. Not even good intentions, including waiting for better technologies that can help reduce emissions a little better.
The term “time value of carbon” is not used very often. It appears in the title of an article by incarnated carbon pioneer Larry Strain but never mentions the same term again, explaining:
“When we evaluate emissions reduction strategies, there are two things to consider: amount of the reduction, and when it happens. Because emissions are cumulative and we have a limited amount of time to reduce them, carbon cuts now have more value than future carbon cuts. The next two decades are crucial.”
Accounting and investment firms use it, perhaps because it reminds them of the time value of money (TVM). Investment firm Generation does a good job of explaining this:
“Time value carbon (TVC) is the concept that today’s greenhouse gas emissions are worth more than the reductions promised in the future, due to escalating risks associated with the pace and extent of climate action…the time value of carbon arises from the harsh mathematics of climate science. We need to think in terms of Carbon stocks, as well as flows, because carbon dioxide (CO2) continues to warm the planet for many decades after its release. Globally, we released about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 despite the economic impact of the pandemic. At this rate, we will surpass Carbon budget for 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030.”
Foley points to an article he wrote in early 2021 with another twist: To stop climate change, time is just as important as technology. He explains the principle of the carbon budget and what he calls the Carbon Act, which demands that we cut emissions in half this decade.
In response to those who believe technology will save us, he notes, “We have to start with the tools at hand, and not wait for new tools that may (or may not) appear in the future.”
“time It is the most important factor here, not whether we have the best possible tools. We’ve already wasted decades of arguing and denying climate change – a form of “predatory delay” that has benefited top polluters. But we wasted all the time we could, and we can’t delay any longer.
We will need to do everything we can to halve emissions within this decade. This means no more waiting. No more delay. Not even good intentions, including waiting for better technologies that can help reduce emissions a little better. We have to start today and put together any new tools that become available as we go forward.”
Foley concludes that “time is just as important as technology.”
In one report, Strain writes, “When you save is important, what you build matters, and what you don’t build matters even more.”
I’ve noticed many times that this isn’t just about buildings, it’s about everything from cars and computers to containers full of things we don’t need. When you look at the world through the lens of embodied carbon, everything changes. The same can be said about TVC: it changes the way you think about things.
Here we have investment advisors, accountants, climate scientists, and architects all talking about the time value of carbon — carbon “now” being added to the big ledger in the sky, all suggesting that emissions cuts today are worth more than emissions cuts in the future.
As Foley says, time is the deciding factor here and we are running out of it quickly.