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Constraining fossil fuels based on 2 °C carbon budgets: the rapid adoption of a transformative concept in politics and finance

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This article traces how the notion of finite limits to emissions based on 2 °C carbon budgets was applied to increase the credibility of a carbon-constrained future in two very separate realms, social movements contesting fossil-fuel development and the financial sector—a process yet to be described in the relevant political and financial literatures. For each realm and sub-areas within them, we apply a three-wave taxonomy to trace the application of 2 °C carbon budget based concepts—including stranded assets, the carbon bubble, divestment, and anti-pipeline campaigns—from the fringe to the mainstream in under 10 years. We do so by drawing on relevant primary documents and peer-reviewed literature, complemented by a quantitative textual analysis of relevant discourse from news sources. The article establishes how, in efforts to shift expectations, climate proponents used 2 °C carbon budgets to frame a stark choice between a safe climate with strict carbon constraints and growth-oriented fossil-fuel interests. The article also demonstrates that these concepts, and efforts inspired by them, contributed to constraints on fossil-fuel developments and interests, arguably further enhancing the credibility of a carbon-constrained future. We conclude with a discussion of the potentially self-reinforcing nature of such expectation dynamics and by highlighting overlapping implications for actors across finance, where investors reorient risk assessment around climate, and social movements, where activists disrupt states’ entrenched commitment to fossil-fuel expansion.

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  1. (ALL = ((“carbon budget” OR “cumulative emission*” OR “cumulative carbon emission*”)AND(“2 C” OR “2C” OR“2 degree *“OR “2-degree*“OR “two degree*“OR “two-degree*”))) AND LANGUAGE:(English) AND DOCUMENT TYPES:(Article)

  2. By contrast, the actual resolution—supported by Shell and BP—never mentioned 2 °C, implying an aversion to the acknowledgement of finite limits.


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We thank Peter Frumhoff and Robbie Andrew for their assistance with Fig. 1 and anonymous reviewers and editors for their substantive guidance. We also thank the organizers of divestment and climate justice campaigns in which we have participated — these experiences enriched our understanding of the movement.


This work was initially presented at the 2nd Conference on Fossil Fuel Supply & Climate Policy in Oxford, UK, with financial support from the Corporate Mapping Project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Yonatan Strauch.

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Strauch, Y., Dordi, T. & Carter, A. Constraining fossil fuels based on 2 °C carbon budgets: the rapid adoption of a transformative concept in politics and finance. Climatic Change 160, 181–201 (2020).

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