Threatening CO2 Producers Yet to be Built

Research by scientists from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology has found that the real C02 threat’s to Earth’s climate have yet to be built.

Scientists Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira believe that as it stands, we can prevent the inertia in our production of carbon tipping our climate past the point of no return.

By calculating the amount of carbon dioxide expected to be released from exisiting energy infrastructure worldwide – cars, power plants, etc – Davis and Caldeira, along with colleague Damon Matthews of Concordia University in Montreal, were able to work out the effect they would play on Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

“The problem of climate change has tremendous inertia,” says Davis. “Some of this inertia relates to the natural carbon cycle, but there is also inertia in the manmade infrastructure that emits CO2 and other greenhouse gases. We asked a hypothetical question: what if we never built another CO2-emitting device, but the ones already in existence lived out their normal lives?”

Coal-fired power plants live a normal life of about 40 years, while late-model passenger vehicles have a normal life of about 17 years. After compiling data on lifetimes and emissions rates for the full range of fossil-fuel burning devices worldwide, the researchers found that that between the years 2010 to 2060 the total projected emissions would amount to about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.

To gauge the impact, they turned to the climate model. The researchers found that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would stabilize at less than 430 parts per million (ppm) and the increase of global mean temperatures since preindustrial time would be less than 1.3°C (2.3°F).

“The answer surprised us,” says 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.” In light of common benchmarks of 450 ppm and 2°C, these results indicate that the devices whose emissions will cause the worst impacts have yet to be built.

But the authors caution that while existing infrastructure is less of a threat to climate than they had expected, this does not minimize the threat of future emissions.  “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. He adds that other factors besides devices that directly emit carbon dioxide might also contribute to the system’s inertia. “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.”

“In our earlier work we found that every increment of carbon dioxide emission produces another increment of warming,” says Caldeira. “We cannot be complacent just because we haven’t yet reached a point of no return.”

Adapted from material provided by Carnegie Institute

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