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Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content


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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Figure 1: Evolution of factors governing the rate of global fossil-fuel carbon emissions in the Kaya identity: cN(GDP/N)(Ė/GDP)(C/E).
Figure 2: Fossil-fuel carbon emissions and primary power in the twenty-first century for IPCC IS92a and WRE stabilization scenarios.
Figure 3: Twenty-first century trade-offs, between carbon-free power required and “energy efficiency”, to stabilize at twice the pre-industrial CO2 concentration. Carbon-free primary power is plotted versus the annual rate of decline in energy intensity.


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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’.

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Correspondence to Martin I. Hoffert.

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Hoffert, M., Caldeira, K., Jain, A. et al. Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content. Nature 395, 881–884 (1998).

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