Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content

  • Nature volume 395, pages 881884 (29 October 1998)
  • doi:10.1038/27638
  • Download Citation



The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change1 calls for “stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system . . . ”. A standard baseline scenario2,3 that assumes no policy intervention to limit greenhouse-gas emissions has 10 TW (10 × 1012 watts) of carbon-emission-free power being produced by the year 2050, equivalent to the power provided by all today's energy sources combined. Here we employ a carbon-cycle/energy model to estimate the carbon-emission-free power needed for various atmospheric CO2 stabilization scenarios. We find that CO2 stabilization with continued economic growth will require innovative, cost-effective and carbon-emission-free technologies that can provide additional tens of terawatts of primary power in the coming decades, and certainly by the middle of the twenty-first century, even with sustained improvement in the economic productivity of primary energy. At progressively lower atmospheric CO2-stabilization targets in the 750–350 p.p.m.v. range, implementing stabilization will become even more challenging because of the increasing demand for carbon-emission-free power. The magnitude of the implied infrastructure transition suggests the need for massive investments in innovative energy research.

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We thank DOE, NASA and NSF for partial support of this work. We also thank the Aspen Global Change Institute for discussions during the 1998 summer workshop ‘Innovative Energy Systems and CO2 Stabilization’.

Author information

Author notes

    • Seth D. Potter

    Present address: Boeing, Saal Beach, California 90740-7644, USA


  1. *Department of Physics, New York University, 4 Washington Place, New York, New York 10003-6621, USA

    • Martin I. Hoffert
    •  & Seth D. Potter
  2. †Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, USA

    • Ken Caldeira
  3. ‡Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • Atul K. Jain
    • , Michael E. Schlesinger
    •  & Donald J. Wuebbles
  4. §Margaree Consultants, Toronto, M5H 2X6, Canada

    • Erik F. Haites
  5. Department of Geography, University of Toronto, Toronto, M5S 3G3, Canada

    • L. D. Danny Harvey
  6. #Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, Califonia 94305, USA

    • Stephen H. Schneider
  7. Department of Mechanical Engineering, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118, USA

    • Robert G. Watts
  8. **National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA

    • Tom M. L. Wigley


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin I. Hoffert.


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