Science makes strong case for rapid deployment

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.

14 Responses to Science makes strong case for rapid deployment

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    Scientists investigate massive walrus haul-out in Alaska ‎

    Scientists fear declining Arctic sea ice may have caused an unprecedented mass migration to dry land

    As usual the Guardian story offers more info.

  2. catman306 says:

    Every new extinction moves us farther away from the time of the Garden of Eden when mankind was in total sustainable balance with Nature and our environment. We notice when the larger animals and birds vanish, but thousands more go extinct every year and because many are tiny creatures or plants we’ve never heard of, we don’t notice. The network of species interactions, that is OUR safety net, is ripped and torn. I hope there’s enough left to hold us up when we fall.

  3. Nyalls Duckworth McShane says:


    Please tell us all about just what the “Garden of Eden” was like. Did you take a time machine to visit and are now back to report of it’s perfect harmony or are you just speculating?

    [JR: Well, we know that the climate that made human civilization possible over the past 10,000 years — which dates back to when the stories about the Garden were written — was incredibly stable, and that we are changing it at a rate that humans have never experienced and that we are acidifying the oceans at 10 times the rate of one of the biggest marine extinctions.]

  4. MapleLeaf says:

    I agree about the abstract. CBC initially mangled it, but I managed to convince them to change their headline.

  5. catman306 says:

    Nyalls Duckworth McShane, the Garden of Eden was a fictional time before the actions of men caused the extinction of any species. I’ve read that perhaps it was the actions of prehistoric men that caused the extinction of the wooly mammoth, saber toothed tiger and some large Australian animal that went extinct about the same time as the first humans settled in Oz, 60,000 BC. A student of animal extinctions could use the dates of these sorts of extinctions to put a real date to when the Garden, as I’m defining it, ceased to exist. Our ancestors had already upset the balance of nature. Gaia had started to notice Homo Sapiens and set about restoring balance and Gaia has plenty of time. Much more than mankind.

  6. James Newberry says:

    I find the implications as follows:

    1) Change the definition of mined carbon from “energy resource” and “fuel” to material resource only.
    2) Recognize economics as an arbitrary human construct that may be readily altered.
    3) Acknowledge trillions of dollars of historic and current nation-state market distortions (from direct and indirect subsidies) for “fuels”
    4) Acknowledge external subsidies like health costs that are much larger than monetary subsidies for fuels
    5) Prevent all further investing in fossil (and fissile) infrastructure for “energy,” since these are really only “useful” as the fuels of war (and are in fact mined explosive materials that can be defined as civilian energy resource only by fraud)

  7. Paulm says:

    They also bring up the point of the footprint of switching
    from the existing infastructure to the new one!

  8. adelady says:

    James, I’ve changed my personal vocabulary to describe these resources as carbon-sink fuels.

    They form as part of the carbon cycle and their planetary function is not to be released in huge chunks. As far as oil is concerned, my view is that our great-greatgrandchildren will be far better off with these carbon materials available for new carbon fibre and plastics technologies (most of which we’ve not yet thought of). Coal should be left for steel production to supplement recycling.

    As for burning this stuff. It really is caveman standard – just with very big, very impressive concrete things to do the burning in.

    It really looks like the ignorant 11 year old children of a wealthy family making bonfires of the valuable furniture that would otherwise have financed their inheritance.

  9. wes george says:

    adelady says,

    “They form as part of the carbon cycle and their planetary function is not to be released in huge chunks.”

    Ah, planetary functions. Thanks for bring that up. I didn’t want to be the first. If Gaia is capable of purposefully evolving functions…then what have we evolved for or towards?

    If Aliens were watching us from orbit, does anyone here really think they would view us, our civilization, our pollution, our nukes, our cities as phenomena distinctly separate from nature? Or would we fit into about the same role as a termite mound does in our view of nature? Human civilization definitely is a natural phenomena on planet Earth as opposed to a super-natural one. The biosphere is about 3 billion years old, its biophysiological complexity is so nonlinear and mysteriously entangled with homeostatic feedback loops maintaining viable conditions for life through asteroid impacts, super volcanoes, solar variation and each phase of the evolution of life that it has been liken to an organism itself, a sum greater than all its systems combined. Gaia.

    Plantary functions? Perhaps we, in the most recent nano-second of Gaia’s life represent the dawn of a conscious self-awareness of Gaia. We’re Gaia’s cerebral cortex?

    Hey, just sayin’ if coal has a purpose, then logically we do too!

    [JR: Sadly, there is little evidence that there are significant negative feedbacks that operate over a short term. To the contrary, the paleoclimate record suggest amplifying feedbacks dominate over shorter periods — and that happens to be what we are witnessing today.]

  10. jorleh says:

    There is only IFR to save us.

    Why to fear any “nuclear”, when we are dead without it 100% in a century? Perhaps 50 years left for us to think and think…

    Our planet is in full anarchy at 440 ppm, 2030…

  11. Peter says:

    430ppm sustained will do more then enough damage to the planet- the arctic will still become Ice free most of the year, and the western antarctic ice sheet will still melt. The earths climate will still suffer the ravages from CO2 at that level.

    430PPM is a ‘cat jump’ to 450ppm- which some scientists say is the point where rising CO2 will not be able to be stopped from rising to 500ppm. So I guess the ‘cutoff line’ for a huge reduction in coal fired power is Around 5-10 years.

    Not be be pessimistic- but to see C02 emissions peak by 2020 now seems impossible.

  12. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent article Joe, thank you.

    Peter (#12) regarding emissions peaking by 2020, I wouldn’t want to say impossible (we still have real effects from Peak Oil to strangle our economies and emissions to an extent for example), but you’re right, its seems a real long shot at this point.

  13. fj2 says:

    The military option employing the Department of Defense to rapidly marshal military and civilian forces to mitigate climate change would likely be the most expedient and effective way.