Power plants, boilers, furnaces, vehicles, and other existing energy infrastructure must be retired to meet the 1.5-degree-Celcius target set out in the Paris agreement and stabilise the climate; however, the world could still reach the 2-degree-Celcius goal, according to a new paper published on 1 July in Nature (1).
Meeting these targets outlines in the Paris agreement — in which nations agreed to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees by 2100 — will mean reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Whereas, more recent calls suggest the need to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celcuis to prevent more and more frequent heat waves, extreme weather events, and species extinctions.
But over the past ten years, the number of vehicles and power plants increased dramatically, in line with rapid economic and industrial growth in both China and India. And greenhouse gas emissions are on the up despite significant reductions in the West. For example, the replacement of coal power plants with natural gas in the US.
To assess whether the world is on track to meet the Paris targets, the team of researchers, led by Prof Steven Davis from the University of California Irvine and Prof Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, calculated the projected emissions of current and planned energy infrastructure.
The census tallied up emissions from all known CO2 sources at the end of 2018, including power plants and industrial emitters, such as cement kilns, as well as transportation sources such as planes and vehicles. The results are based on the emissions that will be created — taking into account economic growth in places like China — unless dramatic policy changes or technological advances occur.
At the present rate of emissions until the end of service life, current fossil-fuel burning infrastructure is on course to release around 658 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. The largest share of this will be produced by (41 per cent), followed by the United States (9 per cent) and European Union (7 per cent). And adding on proposed power plants, this would increase to 850 gigatons — enough to hit the 1.5-degree target by 2033.
As the authors report, this is equivalent to the entire carbon budget needed to limit mean warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and nearly two-thirds of the budget to constrain warming below 2 degrees Celsius over the next 30 years.
On the upside, says Caldeira, 2 degrees Celsius of warming can still be avoided even if the existing infrastructure continues to pump out greenhouse gases until they age out of functionality. But would require halting the building of new greenhouse gas-belching power plants — including those already permitted or under construction.
Even so, radical changes will be required to meet the aspirations of the Paris Agreement and
there is no longer any wiggle room left. Unless innovative carbon capture and storage technologies are developed quickly, which seems unlikely given the challenges of realising these technologies.
Although another recent study suggests that owing to the “net energy disadvantages, carbon capture and storage should be considered a niche and supplementary contributor to the energy system, rather than be seen as a critical technology option.” Therefore, the best approach is perhaps a combination of self-sustaining renewable energy resources.
(1) Tong, D. et al. Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5 °C climate target. Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1364-3