What would happen if we stopped building fossil fuel infrastructure—immediately?

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Coal power plants, gasoline and diesel cars, and smoke-spewing factories fading away are an environmentalist’s dream. Chances of this coming true in the near future are slim, but it’s what we need in order to meet Paris climate goals, a new study finds. If we could phase out fossil fuel infrastructure at the end of its lifetime and replace it with zero-carbon alternatives, there is a 65 percent chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, according to the study published in Nature Communications .

But such a phase-out of power plants, cars, aircraft, ships, and factories would have to start now. Delaying it until 2030 would bring down those chances of limiting warming to less than 50 percent.

For the new study, Christopher Smith, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds in the UK, and colleagues calculated the reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions as the entire world’s fossil fuel infrastructure was slowly phased out. They used a simple climate model to analyze the climate effects of this hypothetical scenario.

The researchers focused on the energy generation, transport and industrial sectors because those have the best data available for historical lifetimes and cover 85% of global emissions. They assumed an average lifespan of 40 years for power plants, 15 years for cars, and 26 years for planes. They also assumed a decline in the consumption of beef and dairy products since those industries are a major source of greenhouse gases.

The analysis results in a scenario in which a majority of carbon dioxide emissions have been eliminated in 40 years.

Such a phase out is, of course, unlikely to happen any time soon. It would require building no new fossil fuel infrastructure. Yet even as coal plants shutter in many places, dozens of new coal power plants are already planned or being built around the world, mainly in India, China, and other parts of Asia. And even as electric vehicles sales ramp up, they remain a tiny fraction of global transportation.

There are other caveats as well, as the researchers admit. No good zero-carbon alternatives exist for some industries, like aviation. Plus the study doesn’t consider factors that contribute strongly to climate change, such as permafrost melt or forest dieback. Nevertheless, it offers optimism that while the challenges laid out by the Paris Agreement are daunting, limiting global warming to 1.5 °C remains possible.

Source: Christopher J. Smith et al. Current fossil fuel infrastructure does not yet commit us to 1.5 °C warming. Nature Communications, 2018.

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