Analysis: “Avoiding key impacts of climate change depends on the success of efforts to overcome infrastructural inertia and commission a new generation of devices that can provide energy and transport services without releasing CO2 to the atmosphere.”
A major new study in Science magazine, “Future CO2 Emissions and Climate Change from Existing Energy Infrastructure” (subs. req’d), makes a powerful case for rapid deployment of low-carbon technology.
The study, one of whose authors is climatologist Ken Caldeira, looks at current and future emissions from existing energy infrastructure. It concludes that if the world built no new polluting infrastructure, we would end up with “mean warming of 1.3°C (1.1° to 1.4°C) above the pre-industrial era and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 less than 430 parts per million.”
So while we are inevitably going to build some new CO2-emitting infrastructure, the study makes clear that aggressive deployment of low-carbon infrastructure starting as soon as possible is a crucial strategy for avoiding carbon lock-in and the relatively higher cost of shuttering existing infrastructure before the end of its life, which in turn is critical for minimizing the cost of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm or lower.
This conclusion isn’t terribly surprising for those who follow energy and climate policy. Last year, in releasing its World Energy Outlook, International Energy Agency Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka explained:
The message is simple and stark: if the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe”¦.
The IEA 450 scenario is the energy pathway to Green Growth. Yet we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector.
Delay is very, very costly.
Some commenters were confused by the new Science study into thinking that it primarily made the case for focusing on low-carbon R&D. In fact, making the case for expanded funding for clean energy R&D is so obvious — and has been made so many times over the past for two decades — that it wouldn’t even merit a new peer-reviewed article in Science.
But if you didn’t read past the abstract, which inherently oversimplifies any scientific paper, you’d only see this concluding sentence, “However, CO2-emitting infrastructure will expand unless extraordinary efforts are undertaken to develop alternatives.”
If you actually read the entire paper to until its full conclusion, however, you’d realize that the abstract is poorly-written and incomplete. Here is the study’s actual concluding paragraph:
If existing energy infrastructure (e.g., power plants, motor vehicles, furnaces) was used for its normal life span and no new devices were built that emitted CO2, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would peak below 430 ppm and future warming would be less than 0.7°C. However, there is little doubt that more CO2-emitting devices will be built. Our analysis considers only devices that emit CO2 directly. Substantial infrastructure also exists to produce and facilitate use of these devices. For example, factories that produce internal combustion engines, highway networks dotted with gasoline refueling stations, and oil refineries all promote the continuation of oil-based road transport emissions. Moreover, satisfying growing demand for energy without producing CO2 emissions will require truly extraordinary development and deployment of carbon-free sources of energy, perhaps 30 TW by 2050. Yet avoiding key impacts of climate change depends on the success of efforts to overcome infrastructural inertia and commission a new generation of devices that can provide energy and transport services without releasing CO2 to the atmosphere.
Of course we need vastly more money spent on development of carbon-free sources of energy, including energy efficiency, as I and others have been arguing for two decades now.
But every year that we delay extraordinary deployment of carbon-free sources of energy brings us closer to locking in dangerously high levels of emissions — which in turn would necessitate retiring more and more carbon-emitting power plants (and the like) at great cost to avoid dangerous warming.
One of the nice things about this study is that it explicitly talks about how “Substantial infrastructure also exists to produce and facilitate use of these devices.” And so if your goal is to avoid dangerous warming, then not only do you need extraordinary deployment of carbon free sources of energy (plus lots of money for development), but you also need to start deploying the infrastructure to facilitate that deployment, like, say, transmission or electric vehicle charging stations.
As worthwhile as it is to push for more clean energy R&D, it would be nice if people would stop pushing the myth that a federal-research-centric strategy is an economically optimal — or even plausible — approach to keeping us below 450 ppm (see “The breakthrough technology illusion“). In any case, advocates of that myth will not find support for it in this study.
In Part 2, I’ll examine the related, but equally misunderstood, issue of how much carbon-free energy we need by 2050 (see “How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution“).
See also Scientific American.