Dangerous warming relies on future CO2 emitters: study
But it's important to stop building new devices now
Last Updated: Friday, September 10, 2010 | 8:55 AM ET
Today's carbon-spewing power plants and vehicles won't raise the global temperature to dangerous levels by 2060 even if they're allowed to keep operating to the end of their normal lifespans, a new study predicts.
The bad news is that that prediction will only hold if we stop building additional carbon dioxide-emitting devices immediately, said the study published in Science Thursday.
Still, Damon Matthews, a climate scientist at Concordia University in Montreal, who co-authored the paper, feels the conclusions are optimistic because they counter the widely held belief that major climate change is already inevitable.
"Yes, climate change is inevitable, but that's because of the decisions that we're making," he said Thursday. "What types of technology we're currently building [are] going to make a big difference to the state of the future climate."
Climate scientists have long recognized that even if man-made carbon emissions stopped today, warming would continue for some time because of the "inertia" of the existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Steven Davis, a senior research associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., wanted to find out how much warming could arise from "technological inertia" — the future emissions of the cars, power plants and other emitters that are already built.
He did some research and managed to dig up the ages, average lifetimes and average emissions of power plants, vehicles and other carbon-emitting machines and facilities around the world.
Then Matthews plugged the data into a climate computer model and discovered that such existing emissions would push the temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial temperatures.
0.7 degrees below threshold
That's about half a degree higher than the warming that's occurred so far. It's also 0.7 degrees lower than the two-degree temperature increase that many scientists consider the threshold for some of the more dangerous effects of global warming, such as a significant rise in sea levels.
Matthews said it's also "a big deal politically" because the focus of negotiations at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 had been to stay under the two-degree threshold.
However, Matthews acknowledged that there is always uncertainty in models that could result in errors. For example, scientists aren't sure exactly where the carbon emitted goes and exactly how global temperatures respond to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
In any case, Matthews said, the biggest challenge right now technologically is what to replace CO2-emitting infrastructure with.
"There isn't a single obvious choice," he said.
He said he's interested in modeling what might work as a technological path toward zero emissions. "Is it wind? Is it solar? Is it all of the above?"
In the meantime, Davis cautioned against any policies that would encourage the lifetimes of existing infrastructure to be extended.
Top News Headlines
- Neil Macdonald: Harper no Obama when it comes to dealing with scandals
- Court freezes assets in widening SNC-Lavalin probe
- Needed: New approaches to defuse 'suicide contagion' among teens
- 2nd suspect in Tim Bosma case in court today on murder charge
Latest Technology & Science News Headlines
- Arctic bacteria discovered breeding at record –15 C
- Bacteria that can live and multiply in High Arctic permafrost at temperatures well below the freezing point of water have been discovered by a Canadian-led team of researchers, offering clues about the types of organisms that might exist in similar extreme environments elsewhere in our solar system. more »
- Video forensics: How easy would it be to fake a Rob Ford video?
- Two media outlets reported last week that they had seen a cellphone video of Mayor Rob Ford allegedly smoking crack, a claim that has gone global. If a video does surface, how easy would it be to determine its authenticity? CBC News asked video forensic analyst David McKay. more »
- Internet bill would unlock personal details, says watchdog
- The Harper government's recent bid to give police more information about Internet users would have unlocked numerous revealing personal details — from web-surfing habits to names of friends, says a new study by the federal privacy watchdog. more »
- Xbox One: A closer look
- The design, performance, Kinect camera, controller, requirements and limitations of Microsoft's Xbox One get a critical look. more »
- How the weather info that storm chasers use can keep you safe
- Radar imagery and a stream of weather information are readily available to the public when severe weather bears down. more »
Bob McDonald's Blog
- Chris Hadfield: The gravity of gravity May. 17, 2013 9:58 AM After five months of being Superman and a media superstar, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is now beginning the challenging task of adapting his mortal body and brain to life back on Earth.
Quirks & Quarks
- May 25: The Origin of Feces May. 22, 2013 11:36 AM Cow pies, scat, droppings, guano, dung, manure, night soil, poop, fecal matter, sh*t. Call it what you may, excrement plays a crucial role in evolution, culture and the environment.
- 2nd suspect named in Tim Bosma slaying
- Killing near London barracks probed as 'terror' act
- Senators' Alfredsson on defeating Penguins: 'Probably not'
- Rob Ford fired as Don Bosco Eagles football coach
- Harper 'not consulted' about Duffy Senate expense repayment
- 1.3 million Montrealers face boil water advisory
- Xbox One: A closer look
- Plumber's car explodes near Vancouver apartments
- 'You will see him again in heaven,' Sharlene Bosma tells daughter