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Potential contribution of wind energy to climate change mitigation

Abstract

It is still possible to limit greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the 2 °C warming threshold for dangerous climate change1. Here we explore the potential role of expanded wind energy deployment in climate change mitigation efforts. At present, most turbines are located in extra-tropical Asia, Europe and North America2,3, where climate projections indicate continuity of the abundant wind resource during this century4,5. Scenarios from international agencies indicate that this virtually carbon-free source could supply 10–31% of electricity worldwide by 2050 (refs 2, 6). Using these projections within Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) climate forcing scenarios7, we show that dependent on the precise RCP followed, pursuing a moderate wind energy deployment plan by 2050 delays crossing the 2 °C warming threshold by 1–6 years. Using more aggressive wind turbine deployment strategies delays 2 °C warming by 3–10 years, or in the case of RCP4.5 avoids passing this threshold altogether. To maximize these climate benefits, deployment of non-fossil electricity generation must be coupled with reduced energy use.

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Figure 1: Scenarios for expansion of wind energy installed capacity (gigawatts) and electricity generation (terawatt hours; assuming a capacity factor of 0.3, see Methods) from IEA Current Policies, New Policies2 and GWEC Moderate, Advanced scenarios30.
Figure 2: Cumulative CO2 emissions (CCE) and global mean temperature change for the IPCC RCPs (refs 26, 27, 28, 29; shading denotes uncertainty associated with historical CCE (±70 Gt CO2; page 27, ref. 1) and RCP anthropogenic CCE (Table AII.2.1a; ref. 1)).
Figure 3: Temperature change from 1861–1880 (ΔT, °C) due to cumulative CO2 emissions (CCE) for the historical period and projected for four RCPs.

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Acknowledgements

This work was financially supported in part by NSF# 1067007 and 1019603 and DoE# DE-EE0005379.

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R.J.B. and S.C.P. designed the study. R.J.B. carried out most of the data analysis. R.J.B. and S.C.P. co-wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to R. J. Barthelmie.

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Barthelmie, R., Pryor, S. Potential contribution of wind energy to climate change mitigation. Nature Clim Change 4, 684–688 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2269

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