Faulty power brakes to prevent emergency CO2 stop

This graph shows the projected decline of carbon dioxide emissions in gigatons (billions of tons) from existing energy and transportation infrastructure (red wedge) over the next 50 years, compared to three emissions scenarios (dotted lines) from the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). High, middle, and low emissions projections correspond to the SRES A1G-FI, A2, and B1 scenarios, respectively. Image courtesy of Stephen J. Davis

This graph shows the projected decline of carbon dioxide emissions in gigatons (billions of tons) from existing energy and transportation infrastructure (red wedge) over the next 50 years, compared to three emissions scenarios (dotted lines) from the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). High, middle, and low emissions projections correspond to the SRES A1G-FI, A2, and B1 scenarios, respectively. Image courtesy of Stephen J. Davis

A dead stop on building CO2 emitting devices would be enough to avoid dangerous climate change, scientists have claimed in top journal Science this week. However, the world is so committed to using fossil fuels to provide energy, the Carnegie Institution’s Steven Davis says it will be difficult to avoid directly replacing existing emitters. “CO2 emitting infrastructure will expand unless extraordinary efforts are undertaken to develop alternatives,” Davis and his colleagues write.

Energy generation and transportation will emit around 496 billion tonnes of CO2 over the next 50 years, Davis, his Carnegie colleague Ken Caldeira, and Damon Matthews of Concordia University in Montreal calculated. That would increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 385 parts per million (ppm), which itself is a big rise from around 280 ppm in pre-industrial times, but the increase would stop at around 430 ppm. This is below the 450 ppm level that’s widely accepted will cause a dangerous 2°C temperature increase from pre-industrial averages. Davis and colleagues predict the average global temperature rise in this scenario would be about 1.3°C. “The answer surprised us,” said Davis. “Going into this study, we thought that existing sources of CO2 emissions would be enough to push us beyond 450 ppm and 2°C warming.”

This means that the sources of the most threatening emissions do not even exist yet, the team warns. “Because most of the threat from climate change will come from energy infrastructure we have yet to build, it is critically important that we build the right stuff now – that is, low carbon emission energy technologies,” says Caldeira. “We have a gas station infrastructure but not a battery recharging infrastructure,” he says. “This makes it easier to sell new gasoline powered cars than new electric cars. Thus there are infrastructural commitments that go beyond our calculation of future CO2 emissions embodied in existing devices.”

Consequently, Caldeira, Matthews and Davis say massive investments in carbon-neutral power generation will be needed by mid-century if the world’s governments expect to maintain economic growth and avoid the two-degree threshold that could bring major climactic changes. They predict that 30 terawatts of carbon-neutral power generation capacity could be needed, which is twice the average power consumption rate of the whole world today.

However, in a perspective responding to the Davis team paper in the same issue of Science, New York University physicist Martin Hoffert warns that current energy technologies are not adequate to reduce climate change risks. “We are in no position to make this energy transition now, and it will likely take decades of hard work,” Hoffert writes. “Carbon taxes and ramped-up government research budgets could help spur investments. But developing carbon-neutral technologies also requires, at the very least, reversing perverse incentives, such as existing global subsidies to fossil fuels that are estimated to be 12 times higher than those to renewable energy. We have to stop marching the wrong way before we can turn around.”

2 Responses to “Faulty power brakes to prevent emergency CO2 stop”

  1. A picture of climate change is worth 1,000 words « Simple Climate Says:

    […] from power sources and transport, how emissions are exported and have also published other blog entries covering projections of future CO2. Using climate models, scientists predict that continued […]

  2. Warming brings home the value of a meal « Simple Climate Says:

    […] rely so much on burning fossil fuels, producing the greenhouse gas CO2 as we do so, we can expect further climate changes. When these changes affect farming, large and rapidly growing countries like China and India will […]


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