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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

Ina Fried, author of Login
1 hour ago - Technology

Microsoft to buy Activision Blizzard

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Microsoft announced Tuesday it plans to acquire video game giant Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in cash.

Why it matters: The move comes as Activision Blizzard has faced a wave of accusations of workplace harassment.

2 hours ago - World

Blinken to visit Ukraine as Russia invasion threat looms

Blinken (R) with President Zelensky. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/Pool via Getty

Secretary of State Antony Tony Blinken will travel to Ukraine on Tuesday as the country faces an ongoing threat of Russian invasion.

Driving the news: Blinken will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, as well as officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv to discuss contingency planning. He'll then travel to Berlin to meet German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and attend a meeting of the "Transatlantic Quad" — France, Germany, the U.K. and U.S.

Updated 2 hours ago - World

At least 3 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least three people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Tuesday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. Officials in Tonga confirmed three deaths in the country's first official statement since the crisis began.

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