Existing infrastructure will emit about 658 gigatons of CO2, depending on assumed lifetimes and utilization rates.
Our net carbon dioxide emissions must approach zero by 2050 if we are to stabilize the global mean temperature at a level that will make the effects of climate change manageable. The trouble, however, is that owing to growing energy demand worldwide we are set to burn plenty more fossil fuels.
Not only that but existing power and industrial plants as well as our current fleets of vehicles are already burning so much fuel that current rates of CO2 emissions are doomed to warm Earth beyond manageable levels. So say the authors of a new study published in the journal Nature.
“We estimate that, if operated as historically, existing infrastructure will emit about 658 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 (ranging from 226 to 1,479 Gt CO2 depending on assumed lifetimes and utilization rates,” they write. “More than half of these emissions are projected to come from the electricity sector, and infrastructure in China, the USA and the EU28 countries represent approximately 41 per cent, 9 per cent and 7 per cent of the total, respectively.”
Currently we release an estimated 41 billion tons of CO2 each year into the atmosphere. The bulk of it, or 36 billion tons, comes from the burning of fossil fuels in electricity generation and large-scale industry. Another 5 billion tons come from agriculture and extensive deforestation.
Worse still: it doesn’t seem like we’re slowing down one bit. Coal plants and other fossil fuel-burning facilities that are already in the works or on drawing boards could well add another nearly 200 billion tons of CO2 emissions to he current rate, the researchers say.
Old emission-spewing coal-fired power plants are being phased out in countries such as the U.S. and replaced by natural gas-powered ones, which release significantly less CO2. Yet the number of fossil fuel-burning power plants and vehicles has still grown drastically in recent years as a result of rapid economic and industrial development in populous developing nations such as China and India.
Yet if we want to keep the level of global warming to 1.5°C, a rate that is widely considered acceptable by scientists, all further coal-fired plants and heavy industry powered by fossil fuels must be cancelled.
“Our results show that there’s basically no room for new CO2-emitting infrastructure under the international climate goals,” says Steven Davis, a UCI associate professor of Earth system science. at the University of California at Irvine who was a coauthor of the study.
“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 result of inaction could well be that our emissions will push the planet beyond a point of no return when it comes to climate change, the researchers argue.
“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,” stresses the study’s lead author Dan Tong, who is a UCI postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science at the University of California at Irvine.
“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,” Tong adds.