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Expand chart
Reproduced from Tong et. al, 2019, "Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5°C climate target"; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new study finds that existing energy infrastructure — notably via power plants — is slated to produce enough carbon emissions over its lifetime to send global temperatures more than 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

Why it matters: A major scientific report last year showed that warming will have far more severe consequences if temperature increases are allowed to creep past 1.5°C. Holding the rise to that level is a key but immensely hard goal of the Paris climate deal.

  • Per the IPCC, it would mean emissions falling to net-zero by roughly mid-century.

What they did: The new paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature compares future emissions from infrastructure — power plants, vehicles, industrial plants and more — against the estimated remaining "carbon budget" for staying within 1.5°C and 2°C.

What they found: Projected cumulative emissions from existing infrastructure, roughly 658 gigatonnes, are much higher than the estimated remaining 1.5°C budget.

That's what you can see in the chart above, which shows that even expected lifetime CO2 from infrastructure and vehicles already in use are enough to surpass 1.5°C of warming.

  • “There’s a lot of aspirational talk about the 1.5 target, and I think that’s all good, but there are some sobering realities if we wanted to meet that target,” co-author Steven Davis of UC Irvine tells me.
  • A substantial amount of these "committed" future emissions are from relatively young coal-fired power fleets in China and India.
  • Davis notes the findings are conservative. The paper doesn't include emissions from fossil fuel extraction and deforestation.

The bottom line: Any shot at 1.5°C likely means shutting down lots of power plants before the end of their roughly 40-year lifetimes.

  • "[U]nless compensated by negative emissions technologies or retrofitted with carbon capture and storage, 1.5 °C carbon budgets allow for no new emitting infrastructure and require substantial changes to the lifetime or operation of already existing energy infrastructure," the paper states.

Threat level: Additional emissions from power plants that are planned or under construction already make staying within 2°C (the less ambitious Paris target) difficult to achieve.

  • Emissions from existing infrastructure and proposed plants could consume two-thirds of the emissions budget for staying within 2°C, the report states.

What they're saying: Rutgers University climate scientist Robert Kopp, who was not part of the study, tells me the results are consistent with what's expected from energy forecast models, but notes the paper is "based on empirical data analyzed in a fairly transparent fashion."

"It emphasizes the radical transformations necessary to stabilize global temperature in the 1.5-2.0°C range: basically, an end to new construction of fossil fuel-based electric and industrial infrastructure, and — especially for 1.5°C — an acceleration of the retirement of existing infrastructure."

Go deeper: The climate stakes of speedy delivery

Go deeper

Alabama trying to use COVID relief funds to expand prisons

Inside the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., in 2018. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Alabama state lawmakers are trying to funnel up to $400 million of the state's American Rescue Plan funds to pay for a $1.3 billion plan to build and renovate prisons across the state, the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Diverting dollars from the COVID-relief package, passed in March, is prompting criticism over misuse.

2 hours ago - World

Jake Sullivan discussed human rights and Yemen with Saudi crown prince

MBS in 2018. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed efforts to end the war in Yemen, the de-escalation of regional tensions with Iran, and Saudi Arabia's human rights record in their meeting on Monday, a senior U.S. official told Axios.

Why it matters: This was Sullivan's first trip to the Middle East since taking up his post in January, and he was the most senior visitor to the kingdom so far from the Biden administration, which has kept the crown prince at arm's length over his roles in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Top Pentagon officials contradict Biden on Afghanistan advice

Photo: Carolone Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top military leaders confirmed in a Senate hearing Tuesday they recommended earlier this year that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that they believed withdrawing those forces would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military.

Why it matters: Biden denied last month that his top military advisers wanted troops to remain in Afghanistan, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "No one said that to me that I can recall."

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