Each part per million of CO2 corresponds to a total of 2.1 billion tons of atmospheric carbon. Therefore, the 560-ppm level would mean about 1,200 billion tons, up from the current 800 billion tons. The difference of 400 billion tons actually allows for roughly 800 billion tons of emissions, because half the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere enters the planet's oceans and forests. The two concentration trajectories shown here match the two emissions paths at the left.
1956 2006 2056 Year
1956 2006 2056 Year
product of goods and services grew at close to 3 percent a year on average, carbon emissions rose half as fast. Thus, the ratio of emissions to dollars of gross world product, known as the carbon intensity of the global economy, fell about 1.5 percent a year. For global emissions to be the same in 2056 as today, the carbon intensity will need to fall not half as fast but fully as fast as the global economy grows.
Two long-term trends are certain to continue and will help. First, as societies get richer, the services sector—education, health, leisure, banking and so on—grows in importance relative to energy-intensive activities, such as steel production. All by itself, this shift lowers the carbon intensity of an economy.
Second, deeply ingrained in the patterns of technology evolution is the substitution of cleverness for energy. Hundreds of power plants are not needed today because the world has invested in much more efficient refrigerators, air conditioners and motors than were available two decades ago. Hundreds of oil and gas fields have been developed more slowly because aircraft engines consume less fuel and the windows in gas-heated homes leak less heat.
The task of holding global emissions constant would be out of reach, were it not for the fact that all the driving and flying in 2056 will be in vehicles not yet designed, most of the buildings that will be around then are not yet built, the locations of many of the communities that will contain these buildings and determine their inhabitants' commuting patterns have not yet been chosen, and utility owners are only now beginning to plan for the power plants that will be needed to light up those communities. Today's notoriously inefficient energy system can be replaced if the world gives unprecedented attention to energy efficiency. Dramatic changes are plausible over the next 50 years because so much of the energy canvas is still blank.
To make the task of reducing emis sions vivid, we sliced the stabilization triangle into seven equal pieces, or "wedges," each representing one billion tons a year of averted emissions 50 years from now (starting from zero today). For example, a car driven 10,000 miles a year with a fuel efficiency of 30 miles per gallon (mpg) emits close to one ton of carbon annually. Transport experts predict that two billion cars will be zipping along the world's roads in 2056, each driven an average of 10,000 miles a year. If their average fuel efficiency were 30 mpg, their tailpipes would spew two billion tons of carbon that year. At 60 mpg, they would give off a billion tons. The latter scenario would therefore yield one wedge.
Wedges in our framework, you are allowed to count as wedges only those differences in two 2056 worlds that result from deliberate carbon policy. The current pace of emissions growth already includes some steady reduction in carbon intensity. The goal is to reduce it even more. For instance, those who believe that cars will average 60 mpg in 2056 even in a world that pays no attention to carbon cannot count this improvement as a wedge, because it is already implicit in the baseline projection.
Moreover, you are allowed to count only strategies that involve the scaling up of technologies already commercialized somewhere in the world. You are not allowed to count pie in the sky. Our goal in developing the wedge framework was to be pragmatic and realistic—to propose engineering our way out of the problem and not waiting for the cavalry to come over the hill. We argued that even with these two counting rules, the world can fill all seven wedges, and in several different ways [see box on next page]. Individual countries—operating within a framework of international cooperation—will decide which wedges to pursue, depending on their institutional and economic capacities, natural resource endowments and political predilections.
To be sure, achieving nearly every one of the wedges requires new science and engineering to squeeze down costs and address the problems that inevitably accompany widespread deployment of new technologies. But holding CO2 emissions in 2056 to their present rate, without choking off economic growth, is a desirable outcome within our grasp.
Ending the era of conventional coal-fired power plants is at the very top of the decarbonization agenda. Coal has become more competitive as a source of power and fuel because of energy security concerns and because of an increase in the cost of oil and gas. That is a problem because a coal power plant burns twice as much carbon per unit of electricity as a natural gas plant. In the absence of a concern about carbon, the world's
Holding carbon dioxide emissions constant for 50 years, without choking off economic growth, is within our grasp.
coal utilities could build a few thousand large (1,000-megawatt) conventional coal plants in the next 50 years. Seven hundred such plants emit one wedge's worth of carbon. Therefore, the world could take some big steps toward the target of freezing emissions by not building those plants. The time to start is now. Facilities built in this decade could easily be around in 2056.
Efficiency in electricity use is the most obvious substitute for coal. Of the 14 bil lion tons of carbon emissions projected for 2056, perhaps six billion will come from producing power, mostly from coal. Residential and commercial buildings account for 60 percent of global electricity demand today (70 percent in the U.S.) and will consume most of the new power. So cutting buildings' electricity use in half—by equipping them with superefficient lighting and appliances—could lead to two wedges. Another wedge would be achieved if industry finds additional ways to use electricity more efficiently.
Decarbonizing the Supply even after energy-efficient technology has penetrated deeply, the world will still need power plants. They can be coal plants but they will need to be carbonsmart ones that capture the CO2 and pump it into the ground [see "Can We Bury Global Warming?" by Robert H. Socolow; Scientific American, July 2005]. Today's high oil prices are lowering the cost of the transition to this technology, because captured CO2 can often be sold to an oil company that injects it into oil fields to squeeze out more oil; thus, the higher the price of oil, the more valuable the captured CO2. To achieve one wedge, utilities need to equip 800 large coal plants to capture and store nearly all the CO2 otherwise emitted. Even in a carbon-constrained world, coal mining and coal power can stay in business, thanks to carbon capture and storage.
The large natural gas power plants operating in 2056 could capture and store their CO2, too, perhaps accounting for yet another wedge. Renewable and nuclear energy can contribute as well. Renewable power can be produced from sunlight directly, either to energize photovoltaic cells or, using focusing mirrors, n ROBERT H. SOCOLOW and STEPHEN W. PACALA lead the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at 3 Princeton University, where Socolow is a mechanical engineering professor and Pacala _ an ecology professor. The initiative is funded by BP and Ford. Socolow specializes in enD ergy-efficient technology, global carbon management and carbon sequestration. He was u co-editor (with John Harte) of Patient Earth, published in 1971 as one of the first college-e level presentations of environmental studies. He is the recipient of the 2003 Leo Szilard I Lectureship Award from the American Physical Society. Pacala investigates the interaction of the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere on global scales, with an emphasis I on the carbon cycle. He is director of the Princeton Environmental Institute.
Was this article helpful?
The solar Stirling engine is progressively becoming a viable alternative to solar panels for its higher efficiency. Stirling engines might be the best way to harvest the power provided by the sun. This is an easy-to-understand explanation of how Stirling engines work, the different types, and why they are more efficient than steam engines.