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.
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.”