Getting a grip on greenhouse gases is daunting but doable. The technologies already exist. But there is no time to lose BY ROBERT H. SOCOLOW AND STEPHEN W. PACALA
Retreating glaciers, stronger hurricanes, hotter summers, thinner polar bears: the ominous harbingers of global warming are driving companies and governments to work toward an unprecedented change in the historical pattern of fossil-fuel use. Faster and faster, year after year for two centuries, human beings have been transferring carbon to the atmosphere from below the surface of the earth. Today the world's coal, oil and natural gas industries dig up and pump out about seven billion tons of carbon a year, and society burns nearly all of it, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2). Ever more people are convinced that prudence dictates a reversal of the present course of rising CO2 emissions.
The boundary separating the truly dangerous consequences of emissions from the merely unwise is probably located near (but below) a doubling of the concentration of CO2 that was in the atmosphere in the 18th century, before the Industrial Revolution began. Every increase in concentration carries new risks, but avoiding that danger zone would reduce the likelihood of triggering major, irreversible climate changes, such as the disappear ance of the Greenland ice cap. Two years ago the two of us provided a simple framework to relate future CO2 emissions to this goal.
We contrasted two 50-year futures. In one future, the emissions rate continues to grow at the pace of the past 30 years for the next 50 years, reaching 14 billion tons of carbon a year in 2056. (Higher or lower rates are, of course, plausible.) At that point, a tripling of preindustrial carbon concentrations would be very difficult to avoid, even with concerted efforts to decarbonize the world's energy systems over the following 100 years. In the other future, emissions are frozen at the present value of seven billion tons a year for the next 50 years and then reduced by about half over the following 50 years. In this way, a doubling of CO2 levels can be avoided. The difference between these 50-year emission paths—one ramping up and one flattening out—we called the stabilization triangle [see box on page 52].
To hold global emissions constant while the world's economy continues to grow is a daunting task. Over the past 30 years, as the gross world
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