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


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 efforts1-5. Yet continued expansion of fossil-fuel-burning energy infrastructure implies already 'committed' future CO2 emissions6-13. 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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