Main climate threat from CO2 sources yet to be built

Sep 09, 2010
This graph shows projected decline of carbon dioxide emissions in gigatons (billions of tons) from existing energy and transportation infrastructure (red wedge) over the next 50 years, compared to three emissions scenarios (dotted lines) from the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. High, middle, and low emissions projections correspond to the SRES A1G-FI, A2, and B1 scenarios, respectively. Credit: Steve Davis

Scientists have warned that avoiding dangerous climate change this century will require steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. New energy-efficient or carbon-free technologies can help, but what about the power plants, cars, trucks, and other fossil-fuel-burning devices already in operation? Unless forced into early retirement, they will emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for decades to come. Will their emissions push carbon dioxide levels beyond prescribed limits, regardless of what we build next? Is there already too much inertia in the system to curb climate change?

Not just yet, say scientists Steven Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of . But to avoid the worst impacts we need to get busy building the next generation of clean energy technologies.

Davis and Caldeira, with colleague Damon Matthews of Concordia University in Montreal, calculated the amount of expected to be released from existing worldwide, and then used a global climate model to project its effect on the Earth's atmosphere and climate.

"The problem of climate change has tremendous inertia," says Davis. "Some of this inertia relates to the natural carbon cycle, but there is also inertia in the manmade infrastructure that emits CO2 and other . We asked a hypothetical question: what if we never built another CO2-emitting device, but the ones already in existence lived out their normal lives?"

For a coal-fired power plant a "normal life" is about 40 years. For a late-model passenger vehicle in the United States it is about 17 years. After compiling data on lifetimes and emissions rates for the full range of fossil-fuel burning devices worldwide, the researchers found that that between the years 2010 to 2060 the total projected emissions would amount to about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. To gauge the impact, they turned to the climate model. The researchers found that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would stabilize at less than 430 parts per million (ppm) and the increase of global mean temperatures since preindustrial time would be less than 1.3°C (2.3°F).

"The answer surprised us," says Davis. "Going into this study, we thought that existing sources of CO2 emissions would be enough to push us beyond 450 ppm and 2°C warming." In light of common benchmarks of 450 ppm and 2°C, these results indicate that the devices whose emissions will cause the worst impacts have yet to be built.

But the authors caution that while existing infrastructure is less of a threat to climate than they had expected, this does not minimize the threat of future emissions. "Because most of the threat from climate change will come from energy infrastructure we have yet to build, it is critically important that we build the right stuff now - that is, low carbon emission energy technologies," says Caldeira. He adds that other factors besides devices that directly emit carbon dioxide might also contribute to the system's inertia. "We have a gas station infrastructure but not a battery recharging infrastructure," he says. "This makes it easier to sell new gasoline powered cars than new electric cars. Thus there are infrastructural commitments that go beyond our calculation of future CO2 emissions embodied in existing devices."

"In our earlier work we found that every increment of carbon dioxide emission produces another increment of warming," says Caldeira. "We cannot be complacent just because we haven't yet reached a point of no return."

The study is published in the September 10, 2010, issue of Science.

Explore further: Spain defends Canaries oil drilling plan

Provided by Carnegie Institution

3.4 /5 (16 votes)

Related Stories

Stabilizing climate requires near-zero carbon emissions

Feb 15, 2008

Now that scientists have reached a consensus that carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are the major cause of global warming, the next question is: How can we stop it" Can we just cut back on carbon, or do we need ...

A new measure of global warming from carbon emissions

Jun 10, 2009

Damon Matthews, a professor in Concordia University's Department of Geography, Planning and the Environment has found a direct relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. Matthews, together with colleagues ...

Carbon emissions 'outsourced' to developing countries

Mar 08, 2010

A new study by scientists at the Carnegie Institution finds that over a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with consumption of goods and services in many developed countries are actually emitted ...

Recommended for you

Study shows no lead pollution in oilsands region

Oct 24, 2014

New research from a world-renowned soil and water expert at the University of Alberta reveals that there's no atmospheric lead pollution in Alberta's oilsands region—a finding that contradicts current scientific ...

User comments : 26

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
2.3 / 5 (25) Sep 09, 2010
Carbon trading, and other measures to constrain CO2 output, all seek to control the means of production, and some schemes actually strive to redistribute wealth.

The "emergency" nature of the calls for international controls are simply meant to whip the masses into a froth allowing government to "never waste a crisis".

More tax money for government schemes, the algores of the world continue to amass power and money; jobs are lost, standards of living drop, as we all sit in the dark and freeze.

Not all Greens are Reds, but all Reds are Green.
thermodynamics
3.7 / 5 (21) Sep 09, 2010
Shootist: Thank you for your insightful and scientific critique of the article. :-) Luckily, the article speaks for itself. It clearly gives us an overview of the options we have to fight climate change and that we can reduce the temperature gain even more if we combine sequestration from existing point sources and zero emission new systems. This was a well written article that gives a good perspective on how we can move forward. However, I am sure that Shootist (crouched behind his barricade with his AR-15 at his shoulder waiting for the commie pinkos to overrun the perimeter)would rather just do nothing.
Alphakronik
2.8 / 5 (18) Sep 09, 2010
I personally disagree with the article. While increased C02 emissions might disrupt human life, it certainly would increase overall life on Earth.

During the era of Pangea, C02 levels were at 2200ppm on average throughout the world. The Earth at that time had 4 times as many species of plants and animals as we do now.

The fact is this, by having 93ppm of C02 now, we are starving our plants of it's precious food.

I personally have a 175lb C02 tank in my greenhouse I use every day on a timer to keep my greenhouse conditions at 1500ppm. Plants do best at this range.

ArtflDgr
1.8 / 5 (19) Sep 09, 2010
problem is that it took too long to convince the genius idiots with extreme self confidence on the left, that its now cooling... been cooling for about a decade now.. and the violation of thermodynamics... that isnt cutting it.

lysenkoist climatology...
NotParker
2.2 / 5 (13) Sep 09, 2010
What dangerous climate change? Less hurricanes?
thermodynamics
3.8 / 5 (16) Sep 09, 2010
ArtflDgr: Are you saying the earth is cooling? Do you happen to have any reference for this information? Here is a site with temperature trends:

http://data.giss..../graphs/

Please explain to me how that looks like we are cooling.

Here is another site:

http://www.ncdc.n...t=global

How about this one (I threw it in just to light you off).

http://www.cru.ue...warming/

Or this one:

http://www.metoff...phic.GIF

But I am sure you have a lot of science based information that supports your perspective that we are cooling. Or, maybe you will point me at FOX "news."

omatumr
1.7 / 5 (18) Sep 09, 2010
There was a news report yesterday that exposes the UN's guiding influence in exaggerated claims of CO2-induced global warming.

I can't post the link here, but send me an e-mail and I'll gladly sent it to you.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
alfredh
2.2 / 5 (17) Sep 09, 2010
When will my favorite "science" site get its collective head out of its ass and look at the world through clear, un-clouded sun glasses. Co2 is a relative trace gas compared to the real constituents of the atmosphere, and is a plant fertilizer to boot. Why this collective insanity by logical, intelligent aware beings. The Sun, asteroids, even Coriolis effects on the mass of water spinning with us at 1000mph has more impact than CO2, come on, get real. We are ants in the cosmic dance, and it is obvious from reading just a few days worth of scientific discoveries that we do not know shit about anything!
omatumr
1.8 / 5 (16) Sep 09, 2010
The geologic record of continuous climate change coupled with cyclic changes in the Sun and a well-known symbiosis of the exhaust product of animal-life (CO2) with the intake food for plant-life are well-established ["Earth's heat source - the Sun", Energy & Environment 20 (2009) 131-144 (2009): arxiv.org/pdf/0905.0704 ]

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
Going
3.3 / 5 (4) Sep 10, 2010
We can green existing gasoline/diesel infrastructure by producing oil from sunshine rather than using fossil sources. There are developing biological and chemical technologies which aim to do this. Leave the fossil carbon in the ground and recycle the carbon in the atmosphere with the help of the sun. This is quite an optimistic article in that it says if we do this the effect would be considerable.
YSLGuru
2.1 / 5 (11) Sep 10, 2010
@thermodynamics

We apologize for not getting to you sooner but with so many legitimate sources out there contesting our Carbon Tax scheme, er I mean plan to save the planet we just haven't had time to let all our members and volunteers on the internet know that we've had to make a few changes.

The push now is Global CHANGE, not Global Warming. I know this is confusing but we had no choice. The initial choice to go with Global WARMING verses Global COOLING seemed to be a good one since there had been a warming trend for several years prior. No one coudl have guessed that as oon as we started our push about Warming that mother nature would play a joke and start the cooling trend that follows any warming trend on the planet.

The good news is we've now decided to go with Golbal CHANGE so that no matter what is really going on we are correct about the Change part since the weather never stays the same anyway.

Thanks agin for your help.

Your friends at CCRU (Carbon-Credits-R-US)
thermodynamics
3.5 / 5 (8) Sep 10, 2010
YSLGuru: Thank you for the update from Rush and Sarah. I got confused by that "Sciency" stuff and forgot that I should be sowing sound bites with no merit to confuse those who only read the title of the articles. I do appreciate your trying to help me understand that science has no room in this debate and that these measurements that show the Earth warming are actually all fakes. Tell me what medications you are taking so I can take the same and it will not feel as bad when I am confronted with scientific evidence.

The Earth is warming you goober. Please present any evidence that it is not; as I asked ArtflDgr above. I do admit that your text is amusing but would you please concentrate on science for this science site?
Shootist
2.1 / 5 (14) Sep 10, 2010
The Earth is warming you goober.


Warmer than what? There were dairy farms in Greenland c. AD 970-1150. The planet was warmer then, something about a medieval climate optimum. But is was warmer.

Regarding new sources of CO2. Gents, it doesn't matter. Anthropogenic CO2 will always be an insignificant fraction of Volcanic CO2.
GSwift7
1.7 / 5 (11) Sep 10, 2010
Since we're predicting the future, how about a little hint about who will win the big sporting events in the next 10 years. I could make a killing.

If the accuracy of previous studies of this nature can be used as an indication of the accuracy of this study, then I wouldn't get too excited by the results. What is the name of the effect where results tend to mirror the beliefs of the researcher? I can't recall...
GSwift7
1.7 / 5 (12) Sep 10, 2010
"The Earth is warming you goober. Please present any evidence that it is not; "

A short lesson: The earth started as a ball of molten rock. Over time it cools, and is now cool enough to support life. As the Sun continues to use up hydrogen and cool, and the Earth continues to use up its supply of radioactive elements, it continues to cool. Or is that not quite what you were talking about? :) Still, I really appreciate your debate tactic of calling people names when they say something that makes you feel bad. You win because you're a winner dude.
thermodynamics
3.9 / 5 (7) Sep 11, 2010
GSwift7:

As I understand from your comments, you have joined (or have always belonged) to the ranks of those who believe the Earth is not warming.

Usually, even the deniers of AGW agree the Earth is warming, they just argue that the reason for warming is not human influence. You are in a rare group if you join ArtflDgr, Shootist, and YSLGuru and attesting to the Earth cooling instead of warming.

As for "calling names" I used the term "goober" as a joke. Let me give you the Wikipdeia definition of goober:

"Goober is a slang term for peanut; it may be used to informally refer to a person who is acting like a jerk or funnily."

I think in the case of those of you who actually propose the idea that the Earth is cooling on a scientific web site, the term is appropriate technical jargon and not name calling. :-)
yempski
3.6 / 5 (8) Sep 12, 2010
Only a fool would believe that humans are not changing the composition of the atmosphere by mining, and then burning, carbon sequestered in the geosphere. The point of the article was to show that technology decisions we make now will have an important effect on the magnitude of the change.
omatumr
1.7 / 5 (11) Sep 12, 2010
Earth's climate is changing, has always changed, and will continue to do so because:

1. The Sun is a variable star.

2. The Sun is jerked, like a yo-yo on a string, about the constantly changing center-of-mass of the Solar System.

3. The Sun is controlled by forces far greater than mankind and the combined political forces of Al Gore, world leaders, the UN, the UN's IPCC, the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, and the news media.

We are awfully darned important (Just ask us, if you doubt that!), but not nearly as powerful as the forces that control Earth's heat source - the Sun: arxiv.org/pdf/0905.0704

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
GSwift7
1 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2010
"Only a fool would believe that humans are not changing the composition of the atmosphere by mining, and then burning, carbon sequestered in the geosphere."

If you plot the graph shown above on a realistic scale, relative to total atmospheric content, not just relative to human emissions, then the graph is a straight, flat line, nearly indestinguishable from zero slope. ...and that's using the very questionable highest range of estimated numbers, and even then, you must ignore the potency of water relative to the potency of CO2 as a greenhouse gas before you see the full picture in regard to human influence. Not to mention that big glowing ball you see in the sky every day.

Somehow, I don't think I'm the one being a fool here. In 100 years, I feel quite certain that AGW will be looked back on with the same disdain that you and I look back on the concept of a flat Earth with an edge that you might sail off of if you aren't careful.
frenchie
4 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2010
There was a news report yesterday that exposes the UN's guiding influence in exaggerated claims of CO2-induced global warming.

I can't post the link here, but send me an e-mail and I'll gladly sent it to you.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo


why not? If it's news you can link it. You make no sense sir
omatumr
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 13, 2010
"EXCLUSIVE: After a Year of Setbacks, U.N. Looks to Take Charge of World's Agenda" Sept 08, 2010 | FoxNews.com
By George Russell

Shows how an unholy alliance [Al Gore, corrupt world leaders, the UN and the UN's IPCC, science journals, the news media, public TV (BBC and PBS), the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, the National Academy of Sciences and the research agencies that NAS controls through budget review] is misusing science as a propaganda tool to promote three falsehoods as scientific facts:

1. Man-made CO2 induced global warming.

2. Earth's heat source is a H-fusion reactor at the core of the Sun.

3. Fusion powers the Sun and is our best hope for meeting future energy needs
thermodynamics
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 14, 2010
omatumr: It is good to see that you are lumping AGW denial along with your view that the sun (and other stars) do not run on fusion. The bottom line is that it shows that crack-pots like you with your conspiracy theories are also anti-AGW. If there were no better reason to believe in AGW it would be because you do not. BTW, do you also believe the earth is flat and people ran with dinosaurs 6000 years ago?
GSwift7
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2010
Thermo, that is absurd. Everyone knows that people and dinosaurs did not ever live together. Dinosaur fossils were created when the Earth was created, already burried in the ground, in the same week that everything else was created. ;)

Okay, that was a joke, but once again you have resorted to personal attacks on Mr Manuel in stead of talking about whether he is right or wrong, and why you think so. The net effect of CO2 on IR absorbtion is well published. This article deals with the extent of manmade CO2 in the atmosphere. What is the natural level of CO2 as a % of the total atmosphere? How much has mankind added to that as a %? Of all the IR energy emitted from the earth's surface, what % is absorbed by manmade CO2? What does that represent as a % increase from natural IR absorbtion? What is the fluctuation in solar energy in comparison to that? I think Mr Manuel is making a valid point. Feel free to post a lucid counter if you can, or just call names and launch personal attacks.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2010
Okay, that was a joke, but once again you have resorted to personal attacks on Mr Manuel in stead of talking about whether he is right or wrong, and why you think so.
Would you take that same tactic with Marjon, or would you simply call him an idiot and move on?
GSwift7
1 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2010
Oh lol. I just noticed this on one of Mr Manuel's online profiles: "1967-1973, University of Missouri-Rolla, Associate Professor"

My father was a Chemical Engineering graduate of UM-R at exactly that time. I wonder if he taught my dad? That would be really funny.

I (usually) only call people idiots when I'm driving or shopping at Walmart. :) If I called people who are strong AGW belivers idiots my girlfriend would kick my butt. We have some interesting 'discussions' about the topic, but I would never call her an idiot. Even someone who is a brilliant, and beautiful, doctor can be mis-informed, I prefer to say to her. :) I would give you or Marjon no less understanding than I give her.
frenchie
4 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2010
"EXCLUSIVE: After a Year of Setbacks, U.N. Looks to Take Charge of World's Agenda" Sept 08, 2010 | FoxNews.com
By George Russell

Shows how an unholy alliance [Al Gore, corrupt world leaders, the UN and the UN's IPCC, science journals, the news media, public TV (BBC and PBS), the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, the National Academy of Sciences and the research agencies that NAS controls through budget review] is misusing science as a propaganda tool to promote three falsehoods as scientific facts:


So you initially didn't want to post a link because it came from fox news...smart since you were bound to bring ridicule for using such a lame source. Did you even read the whole article? This must be the most paranoid piece i've EVER read. It's like a pinky & the brain plot but worse.
Unholy alliance? what is this, the apocalypse? That headline reads straight out of a tabloid.
thermo's classification of omatur as crackpot is hardly named calling when it's true.