Existing power plants across the globe will emit over 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere before they retire, according to a new study published Tuesday.
The new research, as reported by Science Daily, is also the first to quantify how fast these “baked in” emissions are growing as more power plants are constructed — roughly four percent a year. That’s a problem because it means construction of new fossil fuel-burning power plants is outdistancing the rate at which old ones are being taken offline.
Coal accounts for about two-thirds of those 300 billion tons of emissions, while natural gas takes up much of the remainder at 27 percent — a significant growth over the 15 percent of emissions stemming from natural gas plants in 1980.
“Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at the University of California at Irvine and the study’s lead author, told Science Daily. “But worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion.”
As a result, humans are doing the exact opposite of what needs to be done to address climate change. “Far from solving the climate change problem, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse,” Davis said.
Scientists estimate that humanity can dump about 1,000 gigatons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere while maintaining a good chance of staying under 2° Celsius of global temperature rise — the threshold after which most scientists agree climate change will become genuinely catastrophic. (One gigaton is equivalent to one billion tons and standard American tons and metric tons are roughly equivalent).
Human activity has already taken care of about 531 billion metric tons of that “carbon budget,” so this effective commitment to emit another 300 billion tons does away with much of the remaining wiggle room.
The vast majority of the new fossil fuel plants are the result of economic growth in the developing world, especially China, highlighting the global conundrum that’s presented by the need to tackle both climate change and poverty at once. Increased energy use per capita is essential to raising people’s standard of living, but with current technology that inherently also involves intensifying carbon emissions. All told, China represents 42 percent of committed future emissions, India represents eight percent, the United States represents 11 percent, and Europe represents nine percent, with other countries like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iran taking up much of the rest.
“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” Robert Socolow, professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University and the study’s co-author, told Science Daily. “Current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments.”
China, India, and the rest of the developing world are certainly not ignorant of the problem. China, India, and Africa are home to the vast majority of the impoverished populations who will be most at risk from the extreme weather and other changes that climate change will bring, and China has also been wracked by astounding levels of air pollution. The country is engaged in efforts to close down its older coal production, and it’s on track to install more solar in 2014 than the United States has in total, ever.
Africa, meanwhile, will add more renewable energy this year than it has in the last 14 years combined, and many poor communities on the continent are upping their standard of living by skipping traditional fossil-fuel-powered electrical grids entirely and going straight to local, distributed solar for their power generation.
Even in Europe, a new study form the investment bank UBS suggests the combined technological force of solar power, battery technology, and electrical vehicles might undo the need for any new fossil fuel power plants as early as 2025.
That all this momentum is not enough to get the world on a path to stay under 2° Celsius of warming is a sign of how badly further investment in renewable technology is needed by the advanced world — specifically the United States — and how badly our current policies fail to encourage any such moves.