Today’s energy system could blow Paris climate goals
Amid whiffs of chemicals and the electric hum of transformers, Kraftwerk Jaenschwalde rises like an ash-colored fortress over a landscape disfigured by decades of open-pit coal mining.
The communist-era colossus in eastern Germany is one of Europe’s dirtiest power plants, belching 24 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide into the air every year.
It could have been closed for good when former owner Vattenfall, a Swedish utility, decided to get rid of its coal assets in Germany to reduce its carbon footprint. But as local officials point out, the lignite industry employs thousands in this region and together with hard coal accounts for more than 40 percent of Germany’s power production.
“This is the reason why you can’t shut down a coal mine or power plant from one day to another,” plant spokesman Thoralf Schirmer says.
That the fight against climate change ran into that cold hard reality here in the heart of Europe – the world’s climate leader – shows how challenging it’s going to be to keep the global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed in last year’s Paris emissions pact.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the power plants, buildings, cars, trucks, ships and planes in use today are likely to emit enough CO2 over their lifetime for the world to miss that target. Coal plants alone could blow the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees C of warming, the lower threshold also mentioned in the agreement, unless they are shut down early.
“For 1.5 degrees we would have to start retiring things like crazy, and we wouldn’t be able to build anything new,” says University of California, Irvine, scientist Steven Davis. “Two degrees is starting to look equally bleak.”
That hasn’t quite sunk in amid the fanfare surrounding the Paris Agreement, which entered into force with record pace.
Temperatures have already risen by about 1 degree C since the industrial revolution, when countries started burning fossil fuels for energy.
In 2010 Davis and others estimated that the world’s existing energy infrastructure had locked in 496 billion tons of CO2 emissions if left to operate for their expected lifetime. By 2013, as hundreds of additional power plants had come online in Asia, the number rose to 729 billion tons.
“By my latest calculations, we’re close to 800 billion tons now,” Davis says.
That’s roughly what’s remaining of the so-called carbon budget for 2 degrees, according to recent estimates based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment.
That budget is significantly lower for 1.5 degrees. Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, estimated that it’s 150 billion tons or somewhat higher, while researchers at the Climate Interactive group said it’s about 210 billion tons.
There is uncertainty surrounding the estimates partly because it’s unclear exactly how sensitive the climate system is to increases in atmospheric CO2 levels.
Davis’ research shows that, assuming an average lifespan of 40 years, the world’s coal-fired power plants will emit 280 billion tons of CO2, exceeding the budget for 1.5 degrees.
And that doesn’t even count the hundreds more that are under construction or on the drawing board, primarily in China and other Asian countries.
At U.N. climate talks in Morocco this week, governments and clean energy advocates noted that the world’s transition toward a low-carbon economy is well underway, with renewable sources like wind and solar expanding quickly.
But global energy demand is also growing, meaning renewables are adding power capacity rather than replacing existing capacity from fossil fuels, said Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.