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Constraints to Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

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Over the 20th century, critical advancements in energy generation and agriculture have revolutionized contemporary society, propelling many of the modern advancements enjoyed by humanity today. However, these developments have come at a considerable cost to the natural environment, resulting in, among others, global climate change, ecological decline, and wildlife extinction (IPCC, 2013; Masson-Delmotte et al., 2021; F. N. Tubiello et al., 2015). Recent international efforts to mitigate severe climate warming and minimize further environmental damage, aim for swift and significant reductions in annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions worldwide the vast majority of which originate from fossil energy generation (89%), and agriculture driven land-use expansion (11%) (Friedlingstein et al., 2021; Le Quéré et al., 2018; Ramankutty, Evan, Monfreda, & Foley, 2008). Thus, climate mitigation pathways that successfully limit future warming below 2°C require the swift transformation of modern agriculture and energy generating practices (Audoly, Vogt-Schilb, Guivarch, & Pfeiffer, 2018; Popp et al., 2017; Rogelj, Popp, et al., 2018; Rogelj, Schaeffer, et al., 2015a; Rogelj, Shindell, et al., 2018). However, fossil-burning infrastructure is generally long-lived (Davis, Caldeira, & Matthews, 2010; Davis & Socolow, 2014b; Seto et al., 2016; Shearer, Fofrich, & Davis, 2017) and current climate change mitigation scenarios do not track the magnitude and patterns of necessary power plant retirements (Fofrich et al., 2020). Here, we show fossil-fired power plants retiring up to three decades earlier than historically has been the case in scenarios consistent with international climate targets (i.e., keeping global warming well below 1.5°C or 2°C), potentially jeopardizing trillions of dollars in power generating assets. If instead, power generators continue to operate as they have historically, we find the resulting emissions are incompatible with more ambitious climate mitigation targets without the equivalent removal of atmospheric CO2.

We show China, India, the United States, and Western Europe hold the largest share of share of potentially stranded assets, risking trillion dollars in stranded fossil-fired power generating assets if these generators are forced to retire prematurely. However, the monetary and social cost of unabated climate change will be much greater than those accrued by stranded fossil-fired generators. For instance, climate change is projected to reduce agricultural productivity in historically warm regions of the planet (Lobell et al., 2013; Lobell, Schlenker, & Costa-Roberts, 2011; Rosenzweig et al., 2014; Schlenker & Roberts, 2009) and limit the availability of arable land over the remainder of this century. Therefore, we investigate potential shifts in the location of major grain crop (maize, rice, soybean, and wheat) cultivation under different scenarios of climate change and find that just 2°C of warming risks roughly 19% of global crop production, rising to 35% in scenarios where global temperatures approach or exceed 3°C of warming. Although the agricultural impacts of climate change might be lessened through adaption, our findings emphasize the large extent to which a warming planet may disrupt global food production in the coming years. Thus, unmitigated anthropogenic warming stems to jeopardize future food security and equity over the next century.

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This item is under embargo until June 22, 2023.