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Earth Will Likely Be Much Warmer in 2100 Than We Anticipated, Scientists Warn

But there’s some good news, too. Countries are starting to move away from fossil fuels.

Stephen Leahy

Stephen Leahy

Death Valley National Park. Image: Shutterstock

Global temperature rise by 2100 could be 15 percent higher than the highest projections from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), according to a new analysis of the most realistic climate models to date. This means cuts in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) will have to be even greater than expected to meet the Paris climate target of keeping global warming to less than 2℃.

The world is a long way from making sufficient emission reductions to meet the Paris climate targets to begin with—nevermind cutting out another 15 percent. But there’s some good news, too. Both rich and poor countries have begun to move away from coal and oil, the two biggest CO2 sources, according to many energy analysts.

“Coal and oil are too dirty, too expensive and too risky to invest in,” said Tom Sanzillo, Director of Finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in an interview.

Patrick Brown is a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California, a co-author of the study published Wednesday in Nature. “Our results imply 15 percent less cumulative emissions than previously calculated [are needed] in order to stay below 2℃,” he told me. Brown and co-authors focused on finding out what future warming might be, using only the climate models that best replicate observations over the last 15-20 years.

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On a business-as-usual emissions trajectory, they found that the mean global temperature rise would be 4.8℃ by 2100, compared to the IPCC estimate of 4.3℃. The latter estimate is considered catastrophic for our planet, and would lead to sea level rise of over 30 feet, potentially putting the homes of 600 million people underwater.

The IPCC uses some 40 different climate models in its projections of future temperature increases, but some don’t replicate recent temperature observations well.

“Our study shows that climate models that simulate the current climate with the most skill, tend to be models that project more global warming in the future,” Brown said.

The Nature study combines the best knowledge of observations with state-of-the-art climate modelling, said Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a scientific institute focused on critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change, and based in Austria. (He was not involved in the paper.)

“Oil is in decline. There’s a major structural change underway in energy markets”

“It shows that if we do not strongly cut emissions the risks of high warming could be at the higher end of earlier expected ranges,” Rogelj said in an email. “This heightens the urgency and need for global efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

Fortunately, massive reductions in the cost of solar and wind energy, along with the growing electric vehicle market, shows that the cost of rapid CO2 reductions need not be as great as feared. In fact, it’s now cheaper to build and operate new solar and wind facilities than to keep old coal and nuclear plants running, according to a new report by Lazard, one the world’s biggest financial advisory and asset management firms.

The Trump administration plans to force electricity customers to pay for a multi-billion dollar annual bailout of old and uncompetitive coal and nuclear plants through surcharges on their monthly energy bills. The handout, which is estimated to amount to between $311 million and $288 billion by independent analysts, would only go to a handful of energy companies. The plan is to go before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on December 11.

There’s no future for coal, said Sanzillo, the energy finance expert. Between 2002 and 2016, 531 coal-generating units were retired, according to the US Department of Energy. Coal now generates less than 30 percent of US electricity compared to 35 percent from gas.

Last month 20 countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, declared they were phasing out coal altogether. Another 30 are expected to join the coal phaseout by 2018.

Oil has begun to go down the same road. Last month the trillion-dollar Government Pension Fund of Norway said oil is now a risky investment with poor long term prospects and is removing its $36 billion in oil stocks, said Sanzillo.

“Norway’s pension fund knows as much as any investor about the oil market,” he told Motherboard. For other investors holding oil stocks, Norway’s declaration is a “sign written in neon,” he said.

Since the 2008 recession, oil and gas stocks have been falling while the broader stock market has been gaining. For decades, big oil led the markets. Now they lag, he said. “Oil is in decline. There’s a major structural change underway in energy markets.”

There is a growing understanding that energy no longer has to be expensive because there are now better alternatives to fossil fuels, he said. On top of that, the world’s automobile companies are investing heavily in electric vehicles. This means a diminishing number of investors will put their money into high-cost oil production like Canada’s oil sands or drilling in the Arctic. Since 2014, energy companies have delayed or canceled at least 64 oil sands projects.

Last week the US Senate passed a bill allowing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of a sweeping tax overhaul bill. However oil prices would have to substantially higher to make it profitable to drill there.

“It will be interesting to see who wants to go there,” said Sanzillo.

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