Continued development of new fossil-fuel power plants will lock in dangerous climate change, according to a team of Oxford University researchers. Taking the average operating life of coal or gas-fired plants as 40 years, the world’s fleet of carbon-emitting power stations had already committed by 2014 a total of 87 per cent of the emissions required to ensure a 50-50 chance of reaching two degrees of warming compared with pre-industrial levels.
By 2017, the remaining stock of potential emissions will have been locked in, necessitating a transition to renewable or zero-emissions electricity from then on. Alternatively, radical and potentially very dangerous technologies will be needed to sequester carbon dioxide or extract it from the atmosphere, the researchers including Australian Cameron Hepburn wrote in a paper published in Applied Energy journal.
“For policymakers who think of climate change as a long-term future issue, this should be a wake-up call,” the authors said in a statement. “Whether we succeed or fail in containing warming to 2 degrees is being determined by actions we are taking right now.”
The papers come in a week when environmental groups warned as many as 1500 coal-fired power plants are being planned or being built worldwide, scientists found coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef to be worse than first thought, and Antarctic ice sheets were declared to be melting faster than expected.
Electricity generation accounts for about one quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and about one third of Australia’s total. The researchers assumed other emission sources, such as transport and agriculture, would track towards a 2-degree warming limit, an assumption “which may well be optimistic”, the paper notes.
Researchers said we are already zooming past 1.5 C, as .5 C is the temperature lag already stored in the oceans and the ongoing effects of long-lived carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “Meeting a 1.5-degree target without [carbon capture and storage] or asset stranding would have required all additions to the electricity sector were zero carbon from 2006 onwards, at the latest”.
Malte Meinshausen, director of Melbourne University’s Climate & Energy College, said the research confirmed work by the International Energy Agency and others “that we now have enough fossil fuel infrastructure globally in place to emit a detrimental amount of carbon”.
“With the correct market signals in place – such as a price on carbon emissions – it will be more economical even for the utilities to abandon fossil fuel [plants] and switch to renewable investments instead,” Associate Professor Meinshausen said. “If the time for halting investments into new fossil fuel infrastructure is 2017 for the world, that time has been 10 years ago for Australia – the highest per-capita emitter in the developed world.” As it happens, the combination of Australia’s flat or declining demand for grid-supplied electricity and the need to meet the mandated 2020 Renewable Energy Target (RET) means there is little likelihood of new coal or gas-fired power plants being built in this country for at least the next decade, said Dylan McConnell, a research fellow at Melbourne University’s Melbourne Energy Institute. While there are several proposed gas projects and one black coal project in NSW at AGL’s Bayswater site, renewable energy ventures are likely to meet any near-term need for additional large-scale capacity, Mr McConnell said. Some 14,000 megawatts (MW) of wind or solar plants are seeking approval, a tally that is “certainly much more than needed for the RET”, he said. “The cost curve for fossil fuel [plants] is going in the other direction.”