Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5 °C climate target

Abstract

Net anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) must approach zero by mid-century (2050) in order to stabilize the global mean temperature at the level targeted by international efforts1,2,3,4,5. Yet continued expansion of fossil-fuel-burning energy infrastructure implies already ‘committed’ future CO2 emissions6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13. Here we use detailed datasets of existing fossil-fuel energy infrastructure in 2018 to estimate regional and sectoral patterns of committed CO2 emissions, the sensitivity of such emissions to assumed operating lifetimes and schedules, and the economic value of the associated infrastructure. We estimate that, if operated as historically, existing infrastructure will cumulatively emit about 658 gigatonnes of CO2 (with a range of 226 to 1,479 gigatonnes CO2, depending on the lifetimes and utilization rates assumed). More than half of these emissions are predicted to come from the electricity sector; infrastructure in China, the USA and the 28 member states of the European Union represents approximately 41 per cent, 9 per cent and 7 per cent of the total, respectively. If built, proposed power plants (planned, permitted or under construction) would emit roughly an extra 188 (range 37–427) gigatonnes CO2. Committed emissions from existing and proposed energy infrastructure (about 846 gigatonnes CO2) thus represent more than the entire carbon budget that remains if mean warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) with a probability of 66 to 50 per cent (420–580 gigatonnes CO2)5, and perhaps two-thirds of the remaining carbon budget if mean warming is to be limited to less than 2 °C (1,170–1,500 gigatonnes CO2)5. The remaining carbon budget estimates are varied and nuanced14,15, and depend on the climate target and the availability of large-scale negative emissions16. Nevertheless, our estimates suggest that little or no new CO2-emitting infrastructure can be commissioned, and that existing infrastructure may need to be retired early (or be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology) in order to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals17. Given the asset value per tonne of committed emissions, we suggest that the most cost-effective premature infrastructure retirements will be in the electricity and industry sectors, if non-emitting alternatives are available and affordable4,18.

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Fig. 1: Committed annual CO2 emissions from existing and proposed energy infrastructure.
Fig. 2: Age structure of global electricity-generating capacity.
Fig. 3: Sensitivity of committed emissions and mitigation rates to utilization rates and assumed lifetimes.
Fig. 4: Asset value and committed emissions of existing infrastructure.

Data availability

The numerical results plotted in Figs. 14 are provided with this paper. Our analysis relies on six different data sets, each used with permission and/or by license. Five are available from their original creators: (1) the GPED database: http://www.meicmodel.org/dataset-gped.html; (2) Platt’s WEPP database: https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/products-services/electric-power/world-electric-power-plants-database; (3) the Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database: http://carma.org/; (4) the CoalSwarm database: https://endcoal.org/tracker/; and (5) vehicle sales data: https://www.statista.com/markets/419/topic/487/vehicles-road-traffic/. The sixth data set includes unit-level data for Chinese iron, steel and cement infrastructure, which we obtained directly from the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment. We do not have permission to share the raw data, but we provide it in an aggregated form (Extended Data Fig. 2).

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Acknowledgements

D.T. was supported by NASA’s Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Science (IDS) programme (80NSSC17K0416) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41625020). Q.Z. was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41625020). C.H., Y.Q. and S.J.D. were supported by the US National Science Foundation (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) grant EAR 1639318).

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Nature thanks Gunnar Luderer, Katsumasa Tanaka and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Contributions

S.J.D., D.T. and Q.Z. designed the study. D.T. performed the analyses, with support from Q.Z., Y.Z. and C.S. on datasets, and from S.J.D., Q.Z., K.C., C.H. and Y.Q. on analytical approaches. D.T. and S.J.D. led the writing with input from all coauthors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Qiang Zhang or Steven J. Davis.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Changes in commitments from existing energy infrastructure.

a, b, Estimates of future CO2 emissions every four years (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018) by industry sector (a) and country/region (b), assuming historical lifetimes and utilization rates. c, d, Corresponding changes in remaining commitments by industry sector (c) and country/region (d). Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Age structure of Chinese major industrial capacity.

a, b, The operating capacity of raw steel in the iron and steel industry (a) and clinker in the cement industry (b). The youngest units are shown at the bottom. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Age structure of existing road-transport infrastructure.

This figure shows the numbers of vehicle sales by country/region. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Asset values and committed emissions for existing infrastructure.

Total committed emissions are plotted against asset value, by country/region and sector. Dashed horizontal lines indicate 50%, 75% and 90% of total committed emissions if operated as historically. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Annual emissions from existing, proposed and future infrastructure.

The figure shows historical CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel energy infrastructure (black), and future CO2 emissions from existing (red) and proposed (dark red) energy infrastructure, as well as future infrastructure (dark grey) under particular representative concentration pathways (RCPs: RCP8.5, RCP6, RCP4.5 and RCP2.6). Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 6 Survival curves for power and major industries in China.

This figure shows survival curves for the electricity sector, cement industry, and iron and steel industry in China under the assumption of 40-year lifetimes. Source Data

Extended Data Fig. 7 Annual emissions from residential, commercial and other energy infrastructure.

The figure shows future annual CO2 emissions from residential, commercial and other energy infrastructure under the assumptions of 20-, 40- and 60-year lifetimes. Source Data

Extended Data Table 1 Comparison of committed emissions

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains legends to Supplementary Tables 1-7.

Supplementary Tables 1-7

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Tong, D., Zhang, Q., Zheng, Y. et al. Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5 °C climate target. Nature 572, 373–377 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1364-3

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