March 27, 2003

Scientists Urge Development of Non-CO2 Emitting Energy Sources to Avoid Risk of Dangerous Climate Change

LIVERMORE, Calif. — A climate scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in collaboration with researchers from the University of Illinois and New York University have determined that without large-scale development and deployment of carbon dioxide-emission-free energy technologies, the Earth could warm up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit during this century. Furthermore, to stabilize climate, more than three-quarters of our energy during the next 100 years may need to come from energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

A study published in the March 28 issue of Science, titled "Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty and the Need for Energy Without CO2 Emission," concludes that the world may need to deploy fission, renewables and other non-CO2-emitting energy technologies 25 times faster than today’s rate to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system.

A 1992 treaty, signed by former President Bush and ratified by the Senate, calls for "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

The country’s present fossil fuel-based energy system releases CO2 to the atmosphere that is believed to produce climate change with potentially significant and unpredictable adverse consequences.

However, there is great scientific uncertainty as to how much CO2 (or other greenhouse gases) can be allowed in the atmosphere without risking this "dangerous interference" or warming of the Earth’s surface. For example, a doubling of atmospheric CO2 might produce as little as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming or as much as 4.5 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming.

The Science study, written by LLNL scientist Ken Caldeira, Atul Jain of the University of Illinois and Martin Hoffert of New York University, shows that even if climate sensitivity is at the low end of the accepted range (2.7-degree Fahrenheit warming for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 content), more than 75 percent of the country’s primary power may need to come from fission, renewables, and other non-CO2 emitting energy technologies by the end of this century.

If climate sensitivity is at the high end of the range (8.1-degree Fahrenheit warming for a CO2 doubling), nearly all of the country’s energy may need to be produced without releasing CO2 to the atmosphere.
"We’re saying that even if the Earth’s climate system is relatively insensitive to added CO2, if we want to stabilize climate in 100 or 150 years, we have to start the massive transition to carbon-emission free energy technologies now," Caldeira said.

The debate over how much the Earth is actually warming from fossil fuel burning has been cited as one reason why climate change issues have not been addressed.

The authors conclude: "We do not yet have CO2 emission-free energy technologies that can be applied cost-effectively at the required scale. Given the long lead time needed for market penetration of new energy technologies, we need to develop appropriate energy technologies now."

The study implies that climate sensitivity uncertainty cannot be used as a reason for not taking action to address the root causes of climate change.

"We’re not sure how much renewable energy and other relatively non-polluting energy technologies will need to be deployed; but unless the climate is relatively insensitive to added CO2 and we are willing to accept large amounts of global warming over this century, we will need to make the transition to a system of energy production that, for the most part, does not emit any CO2 to the atmosphere," Caldeira said.

This study was funded in part by the Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Sciences.


Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory, with a mission to ensure national security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

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