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A Hard Deadline: We Must Stop Building New Carbon Infrastructure by 2018

Posted on 13 July 2015 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from The Leap by Stephen Leahy

In only three years there will be enough fossil fuel-burning stuff—cars, homes, factories, power plants, etc.—built to blow through our carbon budget for a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. Never mind staying below a safer, saner 1.5°C of global warming. The relentless laws of physics have given us a hard, non-negotiable deadline, making G7 statements about a fossil fuel-phase out by 2100 or a weak deal at the UN climate talks in Paris irrelevant.

“By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again unless they’re either replacements for old ones or are carbon neutral? Are you sure I worked that out right?” I asked Steve Davis of the University of California, co-author of a new climate study.

“We didn’t go that far in our study. But yes, your numbers are broadly correct. That’s what this study means,” Davis told me over the phone last fall.

Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University published a groundbreaking paper in Environmental Research Letters last August, entitled “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions.” A new coal plant will emit CO2 throughout its 40- to 60- year lifespan. That’s called a carbon commitment. A new truck or car will mean at least 10 years of CO2 emissions. Davis and Socolow’s study estimated how much CO2 will be emitted by most things that burn oil, gas, or coal, and it is the first to actually total up all of these carbon commitments.

Based on their work, I estimated that if we continue to build new fossil fuel burning stuff at the average rate of the last five years, we’ll make enough new carbon commitments to blow through our 2°C carbon budget sometime in 2018.

“Is that really where we are?” I asked Davis.

There was a pause, and I could hear the happy sounds of children playing from his end of the phone. Eventually Davis said “yes, that’s where we find ourselves.”

Our conversation then became awkward. I suddenly felt guilty bringing this up, and desperately tried not to think that one day those happy children will despise us for leaving them a ransacked planet whipsawed by a chaotic climate.

“My kids’ swimming lesson is over, I have to go,” he finally said.

I couldn’t accept that we need to immediately slow production of new things like factories, hospitals, homes, and ten thousand other things that use fossil fuels. I couldn’t accept that everything had to change…right away. I sent out emails to leading scientists in different countries practically begging them to tell me I screwed up the math or something. “It’s a different way of looking at where we are but you’ve got it right,” they said.

2018 is less than three years away and hardly anyone is talking about this.

Well-established science that says global CO2 emissions need to peak and decline before 2020. Wait until after 2020 and the costs of reducing emissions rise rapidly, as does the risk of exceeding 2°C. The 2018 deadline is consistent with this. It just happens to be a more meaningful way of looking at where we stand, and the consequences of the decisions being made today to build a school, a data center, or 10,000 diesel-powered farm tractors.

One reason 2°C is becoming increasingly unreachable is that everyone is fixated on annual CO2 emissions. While humanity pumped an eye-popping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2014, that big number looks tiny compared to the roughly 1,000 billion tons of CO2—or 1,000 gigatons (Gt)—that can be emitted for a better than 50-50 chance of staying below 2°C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report.

And yet, without making different choices today, we will have built enough stuff by 2018 to have accounted for that entire budget. We could shut things down before their end-of-life date, but who is going to make that happen? Who is going to pay for such “stranded assets”?

When I asked Robert Socolow of Princeton about all this, he said: “We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.”

To repeat: “A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.”

Right now the data shows that “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow said.

In May, Volvo announced a new $500 million factory in the US that will produce 100,000 cars a year in 2018. Not to pick on one car company, but the CO2 from those cars will take us over the 2°C budget, further into the danger zone of climatic disaster.

Decisions made today matter more than any time in human history.

Carbon dioxide is like a slow, trans-generational poison. Add CO2 to the atmosphere today and it will trap additional heat from the sun for hundreds of years. No one will notice in 2018 that we’ve built enough fossil fuel infrastructure to blow through the 2°C budget. Things won’t look or feel too much different than right now. The extremely nasty impacts of being trapped in an ever-hotter world won’t be fully felt until 2030 or 2040 —and then they will persist for a very, very long time.

It is blindingly obvious that building more things that use coal, oil, and gas equals more CO2 emissions. And building these things keeps it profitable for companies and countries to invest in extracting more climate-destroying fossil fuels.

Even a seven-year old child knows you don’t solve a problem by making it worse.

There is a slow shift underway to replace fossil fuels, but it’s not happening nearly fast enough considering the massive carbon commitments in the stuff we already have built—and continue to build. Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats don’t seem to understand this. They don’t seem to truly grasp that decisions made today commit us and every generation that follows to greater levels of CO2. At some point those decisions will be undone. What was built will be abandoned at enormous cost. We should not forget who deserves the blame and the bill.

This is what the upcoming Paris climate talks are actually about—except that few of the people who will meet inside the giant Le Bourget conference hall know it. Or if they do, they don’t talk about it. Someone should.

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Comments 51 to 55 out of 55:

  1. Stephen, I don't think anyone will 'have to pay' to shut down stranded assets. For example, at the point where it is possible to buy electricity cheaper from wind and/or solar plants than it is from coal plants, people will do so... and eventually that will mean that individual coal plants will be making less money from selling electricity than they are costing to operate. At that point, the coal plant owners will shut them down to minimize their losses. No 'buy out' involved. This has already happened with natural gas undercutting coal in the US overall and solar undercutting petroleum based electricity generation in Hawaii. If wind and solar declining cost projections prove out, then we will similarly see them replacing coal and even natural gas before end of life. Obviously, "a significant carbon tax" could have caused this process to begin years ago... but it will happen eventually even without legislative support.

    Vehicles will probably be a different story. It seems unlikely that electric vehicles will become so much cheaper than petroleum based transportation that it would make economic sense for people to junk their gas burners and switch to electric. Indeed, as electric vehicles proliferate the cost of oil will inevitably fall and keep older vehicles competitive for a long time. Thus, we would need some kind of buy out or incentive to get people to abandon their gas vehicles before end of life.

    However, note that vehicles in the scenario above wouldn't really be 'stranded assets' by the usual definition of the term... that only applies when the 'asset' has become a liability / financial loss. If it still has some value to be bought out then it isn't 'stranded'.

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  2. I don't think anyone will have to pay to shut them down.

    Rather some people will pay because they have shut down! The people who invested in them.

    If a FF powerplant with a 40 year payback time is forced to close after just 20 years because it is being out-competed, somebody loses their shirt.

    And that possibility is what is starting to register in the financial world. They are becoming wary of investing in such plant precisely because of that percieved risk.

    It becomes stranded when it can't service its debts, and there are still debts.

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  3. Interestingly, when we compare electric cars with petroleum cars, electric cars are already cheaper to run in terms of cost per kWh driven than petrol cars, even when the source of the electrons is coal. The issue with electric cars has been purchase price and range. Electric cars give perfectly fine perfomance they just haven't done that for enough kms per charge.

    So when will people swap? When costs say it works.

    But an important point, linked to CBDunkerson's use of the phrase 'junk', is that we don't have to junk them. They junk themselves! They wear out!

    The average lifetime of our vehicle fleet is 10-15 years. So the 'economics' question isn't perhaps cost to justify junking. It is cost to justify choices when we re-purchase.

    Which is a different question entirely.

    Similar factors apply when we consider replacing our power stations with renewables. Most power stations operating today would, in the normal course of events, be shut down by 2050. It is the economics of their replacement that is the central issue.

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  4. Glenn @52...  I suspect this is part of the reason new projects are getting canceled. Lack of backers as lenders and investors see the writing on the wall. There's a good chance those loans and investments might not pan out. When it comes to very large investments like this it takes only a small amount of additional risk to change the financial equation. 

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  5. Electric cars being judged to be 'better' when running on coal generated electricity based on 'cost' is a fallacy of relying on the free-marketplace to develop decent results. The 'price or value' of things in the marketplace is misleading and incomplete.

    In places where electricity is mainly generated from coal burning without CCS, like Alberta, the emissions are generally over 1.0 kg of CO2 / kWh of generated electricity with a cost of about $0.10/kWh. And Tesla's vehicles are among the most efficient at 18 kWh/100 km. This means that running electric cars in Alberta would produce more than 18 kg of CO2 /100 km (cost of $1.80 / 100 km).

    By comparison, burning gasoline is 2.3 kg of CO2/l (Density of gasoline is about 0.75 kg/l. CO2 weighs 3.7 times the weight of the carbon in it). And the extraction, refining and transportation impacts add about 40% more emissions. So the total for gasoline would be about 3.2 kg/l. And my Hybrid Accord is gets an average of about 4.3 l / 100 km. That is about 14 kg of CO2/100 km ($5 / 100 km).

    So in Alberta it is significantly cheaper to run an electric vehicle than a gas burning hybrid. But it is 'better' to run an efficient gas burning hybrid (not one of those 8 l / 100 km hybrids), and pressure the government into meddling in the marketplace to reduce the emissions of electricity generation.

    Some people 'revere' the concept of the free-market'. But, the free action by 'everyone including uncaring greedy people', in the marketplace has to be expected to develop unacceptable results. The free marketplace can only be expected to develop lasting decent results if everyone playing the game is a caring considerate person genuinely striving to best understand what is going on and striving to develop a lasting better future for everyone. That means everyone is focused on limiting what they do, no one attempting to get more benefit from something that can be understood to be less acceptable.

    The irrational idealism that is the basis of most economic analysis was most blatantly on display when Alan Greenspan basically told Congress that he had no idea that corporate leaders would ever willingly do something that they could understand had no future, something that would lead to damaging future consequences. He said that when asked how the 2008 global catastrophe had developed under his watch.

    Therefore, restrictions of what is acceptable clearly need to be 'imposed'. That could be claimed to be 'interference in the marketplace'. But it is clearly essential for responsible leaders to impose restrictions based on the best understanding of what is going on. And that requires leaders to be responsible.

    And that requirement is clearly challenged by the current system based so heavily on cost, profitability, and popularity. It actually would require seeking out those who wish to benefit from trouble-making and keeping them from ever being successful. And that would include not compensating anyone who has invested in or bet on getting away with benefiting from burning fossil fuels. And it would include shutting down unacceptable activity even if it appears to be lower-cost, more popular or more profitable, even if it has only recently been started or built.

    I provided a relevant related response in the previous SkS article about economic growth being able to close the emissions gap here.

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