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Tomorrow’s Infrastructure Poses Greater Climate Threat than Today’s, Study Finds

The challenge of adapting to and mitigating global climate change can be viewed as a problem of overcoming inertia — a basic physics concept that comes from Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, which states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless an external force compels it to change its course.

With climate change, inertia comes in different forms, including political forces that resist attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (see recent congressional debates for examples of that), technological inertia that slows the process of developing new energy technologies, and inertia in geophysical systems such as the oceans, which respond to manmade greenhouse gas emissions in a delayed fashion, thereby ensuring that today’s emissions will continue to warm the climate for decades to centuries to come.

A new analysis published in the journal Science highlights a different kind of inertia, and in doing so puts the task of reducing the severity of global climate change into a new and perhaps even more daunting perspective. Authors Steven J. Davis and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, along with Damon Matthews of Concordia University in Montreal, focus on what they call “infrastructural inertia,” which refers to the greenhouse gases that will be emitted from today’s existing infrastructure.

Such infrastructure ranges from coal-fired power plants to automobiles, and their emissions can be thought of as emissions that are virtually guaranteed to continue through the next few decades until the devices reach the end of their lifespan.

Projected decline of CO2 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). Credit: Carnegie Institution For Science.

The study answers the following questions: “What if no additional [carbon dioxide] CO2-emitting devices (e.g., power plants, motor vehicles) were built, but all the existing CO2-emitting devices were allowed to live out their normal lifetimes? What CO2 levels and global mean temperatures would we attain?”

In doing so, it offers a way of differentiating between the threat posed by CO2-emitting devices that are on the drawing board right now, and ones that are already operating.

The study finds that if no new sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are built after 2010, the climate would warm by 1.3°C compared to the pre-industrial era, and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would stabilize below 430 parts per million. The cumulative future emissions, or “committed emissions,” from 2010 to 2060 from existing infrastructure would total 496 gigatonnes of CO2, the study finds.

“Because these conditions would likely avoid many key impacts of climate change,” the study states, “we conclude that sources of the most threatening emissions have yet to be built.”

In other words, the most dangerous climate threat stems from the power plants, cars, trucks, and factories of tomorrow, not the infrastructure that already exists. This highlights the need to plan — and plan quickly — for infrastructure that is far less carbon-intensive than what the industrialized world has traditionally relied upon until now.

“However, CO2-emitting infrastructure will expand unless extraordinary efforts are undertaken to develop alternatives,” the researchers state, noting that scenarios based on continued development of fossil-fuel-based infrastructure show cumulative emissions of 2,986 to 7,402 Gt CO2 by 2100, leading to warming of 2.4 to 4.6°C by 2100, and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 greater than 600 ppm.

That would fail to meet the goals world leaders established in the Copenhagen Accord last December. That non-binding document contains the aspirational aim of preventing the climate from warming more than 2°C above preindustrial levels in order to avoid some of the most dangerous potential consequences of climate change.

The study delves into the distribution of infrastructural inertia around the world, finding that it is greatest in China, “where rapid economic development and industrialization in the past decade have led to a prodigious expansion of energy infrastructure.” For example, the authors note that the average Chinese power plant is 12-years-old, compared to the U.S. where the average power plant age is 32.

“Thus, although current CO2 emissions from China and the United States are similar in magnitude, the infrastructural commitment to future CO2 emissions is much greater in China, because China’s energy infrastructure is younger than that of the United States, and thus has a longer remaining lifetime,” the study finds.