Ice-Blog: Coal, climate, cryosphere

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Fossil fuel power plants are still on the increase – committed carbon emissions are rising fast.

At first glance you might respond to that with “so what’s new”? Well, a study is new, which indicates that in spite of all the political rhetoric in a lot of places about switching to renewable energies and moving away from fossil fuels, we are building more fossil fuel power plants than ever before. Unsurprisingly, that is leading to an increase of carbon dioxide emissions, which is bad news for plans to keep global temperature rise below 2°Celsius. It is extremely bad news for those of concerned about the cryosphere and the increasing melt rates of Greenland and parts of Antarctica. The main problem, the authors tell us, is that we have already committed to huge emissions by investing in polluting technologies.

Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine and Robert Socolow of Princeton University in the US, report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that existing power plants will emit 300 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during their lifetimes. In this century alone, emissions from these plants have grown by 4% per year.

The two scientists have already reported on the increasing costs of delay in phasing out fossil fuel sources of energy, notes Tim Radford of the Climate News Network. Thanks again to you people for drawing attention to the study. Their latest research looks at the steady future accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from power stations.

“Despite international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, total remaining commitments in the global power sector have not declined in a single year since 1950 and are in fact growing rapidly,” the report states.

Massive emissions already committed
The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster. Scientists also report a decreasing albedo with snow becoming darker. (Irene Quaile)
The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster. Scientists also report a decreasing albedo with snow becoming darker. (Irene Quaile)

Governments worldwide have in principle accepted that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced and average global warming limited to a rise of 2°C.

At the current pace though, scientists have warned that the world is on track for at least 4° Celsius by the end of the century. That could mean drastic rises in sea levels and catastrophic drought in some areas of the world.

“We are flying a plane that is missing a crucial dial on the instrument panel,” said Socolow. The needed dial would report committed emissions. Right now, as far as emissions are concerned, the only dial on our panel tells us about current emissions, not the emissions that capital investment will bring about in future years.”

In the latest study, scientists asked: once a power station is built, how much carbon dioxide will it emit, and for how long? They assumed a functioning lifetime of 40 years for a fossil fuel plant and then tallied the results.

The fossil fuel-burning stations built worldwide in 2012 alone will produce 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. The entire world production of the greenhouse gas from all of the world’s working fossil fuel power stations in 2012 was 14 billion tons.

“Far from solving the problem of climate change, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse,” the experts stress.

The US and Europe between them account for 20% of committed emissions, but these commitments have been declining in recent years. Facilities in China and India account for 42% and 8% respectively of all committed future emissions, and these are rapidly growing in number. Two-thirds of emissions are from coal-burning stations ad the share from gas-fired stations had risen to 27% by 2012.

The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is not happening fast enough. (Irene Quaile)
The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is not happening fast enough. (Irene Quaile)
Fossil fuel wind-down not fast enough

Davis says more fossil fuel-burning facilities have to be retired than new ones built. “But worldwide we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion”, he added.

According to Socolow, a high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments: “current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments,” he said.

The current draft of a summary report to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to be released in November and viewed by the Times this week, warns of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are brought under control. The IPCC stresses that human-induced climate change will lead to the devastation of homes and property, a scarcity of food and water and human mass migration, as sea levels rise through warming temperatures and – alas – melting ice.

Related links from around the North:

Canada: EU calls for increased protection for the Arctic, sanctuary around North, Radio Canada International

Russia:  Extractive frontiers – The Arctic and Central Asia, Blog by Mia Bennett

Sweden:  Time to get tough on EU carbon emissions says Swedish politician, Radio Sweden

United States:  Alaska village stares down climate change and refuses to budge, Alaska Dispatch

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Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Scots-born journalist Irene Quaile works as Correspondent for Environment and Climate Change with Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. She has also worked for German national radio, Radio Netherlands, the BBC and ABC Radio National, Australia. Irene has received several international radio prizes , including a New York International Radio Festivals gold medal and a United Nations gold award for outstanding radio. She has travelled widely to countries including Mongolia, Laos and Tanzania, working on development and environment-related issues. Since 2007 she has been specialising on the Arctic and made trips to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people. The Ice Blog was created during a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008. Read Irene Quaile's articles

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