Fossil fuel plants must be phased out early to hit climate goals, study warns

Existing fossil fuel-burning infrastructure such as coal power plants must be retired early if the world is to keep global warming under 1.5C by 2050, a new study has warned.

Research led by the University of California, Irvine, published in the journal Nature, found that emissions from existing energy infrastructure take up the entire carbon budget needed to hit the 1.5C target in the Paris Agreement, and close to two-thirds of the budget to keep warming under 2C.

The study’s findings suggest that the decarbonisation of the world’s energy infrastructure must take place ahead of schedule if international climate aims are to be met.

‘We need to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury to achieve stabilization of global temperatures as called for in international agreements such as the Paris accords,’ said lead author Dan Tong, a UCI postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science.

‘But that won’t happen unless we get rid of the long-lasting power plants, boilers, furnaces and vehicles before the end of their useful life and replace them with non-emitting energy technologies.’

Those behind the study used data sets of existing fossil-fuel burning infrastructure to estimate ‘committed’ carbon dioxide emissions, based on how long different pieces of infrastructure tend to remain in operation.

The scientists found that if existing infrastructure operates as usual, it will emit about 658 gigatons of CO2 during its lifetime, with over half of these emissions expected to come from the electricity sector, especially in China.

Meanwhile, closing existing power plants after 25 years of operation rather than the usual 40 may still allow the 1.5C limit to be met.

The researchers also warned that targets could be thrown off by infrastructure yet to be built, as power plants currently being planned, permitted or under construction would emit an additional 188 gigatons of CO2.

If this prospective infrastructure is built, the total amount of future emissions would hit three-quarters of the carbon budget to keep warming below 2C.

Steven Davis, co-author of the study and a UCI associate professor of Earth system science, said the results show that there is ‘basically no room’ for new CO2-emitting infrastructure.

‘Existing fossil fuel-burning power plants and industrial equipment will need to be retired early unless they can be feasibly retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technologies or their emissions are offset by negative emissions,’ Davis explained.

‘Without such radical changes, we fear the aspirations of the Paris agreement are already at risk.’

The UK has already largely phased out its coal power plants as the country enjoyed its longest ever coal-free run of 18 days earlier this year.

However, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal and was recently found to be giving around $10bn of public finance a year to coal industries abroad.


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