According to research published today in the journal Science, global warming can be limited to 1.3 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2060 – less than the 2-degree rise that UN climate scientists warn is likely to trigger dangerous tipping points.
The catch? We can’t build any new carbon dioxide-emitting power stations or cars. Effective immediately.
The researchers acknowledge this is not realistic, but say it underlines that the most threatening sources of man-made climate change are yet to be built. ”If existing energy infrastructure [power plants, motor vehicles, furnaces] were used for its normal life span and no new devices were built … atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would peak below 430 parts per million and future warming would be less than 0.7 degrees Celsius [above today],” says the paper, led by Carnegie Institution of Washington academic Steven Davis.
The researchers found locked-in emissions were greatest in the world’s richest countries – the US, western Europe, Japan – and the emerging economic giants, particularly China.
Nearly one quarter of the world’s new electricity generation over the past decade has been coal-fired plant commissioned in Beijing.
Globally, the shift to clean energy sources has been gradual. Since 2000, nearly a third of new power generation has come from burning coal. Another third has been fired by natural gas – less greenhouse gas-intensive, but still a fossil fuel. Carbon dioxide-free energy sources have made up less than one fifth of the new generation. Of that, 17 per cent has been renewable energy – largely solar, wind and hydroelectricity.
Nuclear power, the largest source of installed low-carbon energy, has declined markedly since the 1980s and made up just 2 per cent.
The study only examined industries that emit greenhouse gas directly. Those that encourage people to boost emissions through the products they produce – petrol stations, oil refineries and factories that produce internal combustion engines – were not counted.