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MIT Technology Review

We’ve already built too many power plants and cars to prevent 1.5 ˚C of warming

Unless we begin shutting down coal and natural-gas facilities, and stop building new ones, we’re doomed to miss the targets of the Paris treaty.

A coal-fired power plant in Huai'an city, east China's Jiangsu province.A coal-fired power plant in Huai'an city, east China's Jiangsu province.
A coal-fired power plant in Huai'an city, east China's Jiangsu province.
Imaginechina via AP Images

In 2010, scientists warned we’d already built enough carbon-dioxide-spewing infrastructure to push global temperatures up 1.3 ˚C, and stressed that the fossil-fuel system would only continue to expand unless “extraordinary efforts are undertaken to develop alternatives.”

Spoiler: They weren’t.

In a sequel to that paper published in Nature today, researchers found we’re now likely to sail well past 1.5 ˚C of warming, the aspirational limit set by the Paris climate accords, even if we don’t build a single additional power plant, factory, vehicle, or home appliance. Moreover, if these components of the existing energy system operate for as long as they have historically, and we build all the new power facilities already planned, they’ll emit about two thirds of the carbon dioxide necessary to crank up global temperatures by 2 ˚C.

If fractions of a degree don’t sound that dramatic, consider that 1.5 ˚C of warming could already be enough to expose 14% of the global population to bouts of severe heat, melt nearly 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers) of Arctic permafrost, and destroy more than 70% of the world’s coral reefs. The hop from there to 2 ˚C may subject nearly three times as many people to heat waves, thaw nearly 40% more permafrost, and all but wipe out coral reefs, among other devastating effects, research finds.

The basic conclusion here is, in some ways, striking. We've already built a system that will propel the planet into the dangerous terrain that scientists have warned for decades we must avoid. This means that building lots of renewables and adding lots of green jobs, the focus of much of the policy debate over climate, isn’t going to get the job done.

We now have to ask a much harder societal question: How do we begin forcing major and expensive portions of existing energy infrastructure to shut down years, if not decades, before the end of its useful economic life?

Power plants can cost billions of dollars and operate for half a century. Yet the study notes that the average age of coal plants in China and India—two of the major drivers of the increase in “committed emissions” since the earlier paper—­­­­­­­is about 11 and 12 years, respectively.

Other options for reducing climate impacts could include retrofitting existing energy infrastructure with systems that capture climate emissions, or offsetting emissions with tools that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But both of those are expensive as well.

Early retirements or pricey retrofits will almost certainly not happen without strict government mandates, significant carbon prices, or technological breakthroughs that either directly force the hands of energy companies or alter the economics enough to nudge them along. 

“The industry has trillions of dollars of assets that will not go easy into that good night, as it were, so we’re going to have to figure out a way to hasten that,” says Steven Davis, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Davis worked on both papers, along with Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution. The lead author of the new study is Dan Tong, a postdoc in Davis’s research group at UC Irvine.

The scientists conducted the study by pulling together global data sets tracking major carbon dioxide sources like power plants, vehicles, industrial boilers, and residential appliances such as furnaces and stoves. Together, they’d pump out about 660 billion additional metric tons of greenhouse gases from this point forward, well above the 580 billion tons that mark the top end of the estimated range for limiting warming to 1.5 ˚C.

(The study doesn’t address non-energy greenhouse-gas sources, which include potent emissions from things like fertilizer and livestock. But those sources are already factored into the level of energy system emissions that will reach or exceed the UN climate panel’s “carbon budgets” for particular temperature levels, which were employed in the study.)

Meanwhile, the world is busy building more energy infrastructure. Power facilities already in the pipeline—“planned, permitted, or under construction”—would emit nearly 200 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the researchers found. Most of those impending facilities are in China, India, and the rest of the developing world.

Emissions from existing systems plus these planned plants would add up to about 850 billion tons, closing in on the carbon budget for 2 ˚C, which runs between 1,170 and 1,500 billion tons.

The tiny bright spot here is that it seems we haven’t already built or planned enough energy infrastructure to exceed that more dangerous warming threshold (unless these systems operate at higher rates or for longer durations than they have in the past). But there’s little indication that nations, particularly in the developing world, will suddenly stop building fossil-fuel plants after completing what’s in the pipeline.