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Climate and Energy: Where is the tipping point?

December 5, 2011

The International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook was released last month, and it was a gloomy report.  This is primarily because the IEA has accepted the notion that global warming must be contained to an increase of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and that this cannot be done if CO2 reaches a level beyond 450 part per million (PPM) in the atmosphere.  The IEA reports that 80% of the 450ppm level is already “locked in” to the equation because of existing infrastructure, and that the world will likely use up the remaining balance within 5 or 6 years, primarily because of the heavy use of coal by developing nations, especially China.  Basically, according to this report, the CO2 gate is closing faster than the carbon-fueled global economy can adapt, and there is scant evidence of the existence of the political will necessarily to change things in a hurry.  The race is all but lost.

Or is it?  What if the 450PPM model is incorrect?  A new article in the journal Science indicates that this might be the case; that the +2 degree tipping point might not occur short of concentrations of 600PPM or even greater.   This would mean that the world has more time to achieve growth through a fossil fuel economy, while at the same time developing more efficient technologies for burning coal or for capturing and sequestering or utilizing carbon emissions.  Bringing vast amounts of cheap shale gas to market to substitute for coal would buy even more time.  The crisis, it seems, is not imminent at all.

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