Existing carbon stock compromises goals

The existing coal fired power plants and energy hungry factories of the world’s largest economies are enough to compromise existing emissions goals, a new report by the University of California, Irvine has found.

“We need to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury to achieve stabilization of global temperatures as called for in international agreements such as the Paris accords,” said lead author Dan Tong, a UCI postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science.

“But that won’t happen unless we get rid of the long-lasting power plants, boilers, furnaces and vehicles before the end of their useful life and replace them with non-emitting energy technologies.”

The number of fossil fuel-burning plants and vehicles has increased significantly over the last decade, driven predominately by strong economic growth in rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India.

According to the study, emissions from existing energy infrastructure take up the entire carbon budget to limit mean warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and close to two-thirds of the budget to keep warming to under 2 C over the next three decades.

The report found that while the pace of growth in fossil fuel-burning infrastructure has tapered off recent years, a significant amount of new, carbon based electricity generation has been proposed in the coming years. If this prospective infrastructure is built, total future emissions take up three-quarters of the budget to constrain warming to below 2 C.

Tong and her colleagues used detailed data sets of existing fossil fuel-burning infrastructure in 2018 to estimate “committed” carbon dioxide emissions. They assumed that power plants and industrial boilers will operate for about 40 years and that light-duty vehicles will be on the road for 15 years, with some regional variation in fuel economy and annual miles travelled.

“Our results show that there’s basically no room for new CO2-emitting infrastructure under the international climate goals,” said co-author Steven Davis, a UCI associate professor of Earth system science. “Rather, existing fossil fuel-burning power plants and industrial equipment will need to be retired early unless they can be feasibly retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technologies or their emissions are offset by negative emissions. Without such radical changes, we fear the aspirations of the Paris agreement are already at risk.”

The full report, published in Nature, can be found here

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