According to new research, it will be very difficult to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold at which catastrophic climate change is most likely.
According to a new paper published in Nature, if the Earth warms by more than 1.5 ° C, millions of people could be displaced by rising sea levels and world crop yields could decline.
The academic website The Conversations says that, fortunately, the political will to prevent this seems more widespread than ever.
The UK recently became the first major economy to pass a zero-emissions commitment by 2050.
The main problem is that the new study has shown that if the world continues to use its existing power plants, the 1.5 ° C target will likely be exceeded.
If all the fossil fuel plants and other carbon-emitting infrastructure that are currently planned are built, this goal will be exceeded.
There are a significant number of fossil fuel plants currently operating around the world. Its continued use would mean that enough greenhouse gases will be emitted to exceed the carbon budget to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 ° C.
The Conversations says that, excluding all other sources of emissions, the infrastructure that is currently operational and planned to be used in the next decade would consume two-thirds of the global carbon budget to limit warming to 2.0 ° C.
People have known about the dangers of climate change since at least the 1980s, but even so, the age of many fossil fuel power plants currently operating around the world is staggering. Almost half of these power plants, which run on coal, oil and gas, were put into service after 2004.
The United Nations Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions came into force in 2005.
The world is now committed to emissions from these plants unless they are closed early. Even stopping the construction of new fossil fuel power plants will not be enough to meet the 1.5 ° C target.
Capturing and storing the carbon dioxide (CO2) these plants produce would also help, but this technology is required on an industrial scale in almost all power plants to make a substantial impact. At the moment, there are only 21 in operation or under construction worldwide.
There are more plans, in the UK there are plans to sequester carbon from a chemical plant in Cheshire and from Drax, the UK's largest power plant. However, previous plans for carbon capture and storage at Drax were scrapped in 2015.
Drax currently handles 50 percent of biomass, organic material, such as wood or other crop plants. It is considered a renewable fuel, since the time to produce it is relatively short.
The carbon emitted by biomass is absorbed when plants grow and released when they are burned for energy. In this way, the technology is said to be a “net-zero” carbon emitter. This could be part of the solution to reducing emissions, but the life cycle impacts of any energy solution must be fully understood. The Conversations say that if they are not, there is a risk of more environmental problems arising.
The closure of fossil fuel-fueled power plants might be possible in some countries, but the difference in the average age of these plants around the world is clear. Coal power plants in China and India are on average just over ten years old. In the United States and the European Union, the average age is over 30 years.
The document shows that the world's newest plants are in countries where demand for electricity is growing, they are less likely to be able to close them soon.
Existing electricity and industrial infrastructure account for just under 80 percent of committed emissions, that is, emissions that will come from infrastructure already in use. It might seem like the easy solution would be to simply stop using it.
But even as we commit to net zero emissions by 2050 in the UK, we are supporting fossil fuel projects abroad and cutting funding for renewable technologies.
The new study shows that if the UK is serious about meeting our commitments, it cannot continue to do so.
The study authors believe that the world has a reasonable chance of avoiding a 1.5 ° C warming if governments do two things:
First, ban all new CO2-emitting infrastructure, including those that are proposed but not built.
Second, remove the existing infrastructure in industry and energy as soon as possible.
Without these changes, the authors say, the goals adopted in the Paris Agreement are already in jeopardy.
Plants powered by fossil fuels that cannot be shut down must be coupled with carbon capture and storage technology.
As climate emergencies are declared, this document outlines the level of commitment everyone needs to achieve radical emission reductions.
Without a fundamental change to the current situation, our global climate will warm beyond 1.5 ° C.