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March 06, 2012
Benefits of Large-Scale Low-Carbon Transition Will Take a While
    by Robert Kropp

The authors of a new study find that even a rapid transition to clean energy will not produce climate benefits until the second half of this century, while converting coal to natural gas will have little positive effect.

Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, an invention capital firm with more than $5 billion under management, was criticized by many environmentalists when he suggested in 2009 that limiting carbon emissions is an insufficient strategy for reversing climate change.

"I think that you have to be an incredible optimist, or you have to believe that it's not a severe problem, to think that that's the only solution we should investigate right now," Myhrvold said.

Instead, Myhrvold touted a technology called the StratoShield, a form of geoengineering that would pump sulfur-bearing aerosols in the stratosphere to decrease the amount of sunlight reaching the earth.

A new study authored by Myhrvold and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science does not suggest stratospheric shields or other geoengineering solutions to the climate crisis. Nevertheless, the study does continue to paint a gloomy picture of emissions reduction strategies as effective ways of combating climate change, at least in the near term.

"Rapid deployment of low-emission energy systems can do little to diminish the climate impacts in the first half of this century," the authors state.

"Shifting from one energy system to another is hard work and a slow process," Caldeira said. "It takes several decades for the climate system to fully respond to reductions in emissions. If we expect to see substantial benefits in the second half of this century, we had better get started now."

Furthermore, "You have to use the energy system of today to build the new-and-improved energy system of tomorrow, and unfortunately that means creating more emission in the near-term than we would otherwise," Myhrvold added. "So we incur a kind of 'emissions debt' in making the transition to a better system, and it can take decades to pay that off. Meanwhile, the temperature keeps rising."

The study warns that the need for a large-scale transition to clean energy technologies, along with energy efficiency measures, is urgent. "Delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond," it states.

On the other hand, even if every coal-fired power plant in existence were converted to natural gas, it "cannot yield substantial temperature reductions this century." According to the study, such a transition would result in global temperature within a tenth of a degree of the warming that coal-fired plants would produce.

"Rapid deployment of low-emission energy systems can do little to diminish the climate impacts in the first half of this century," the study concludes. "Conservation, wind, solar, nuclear power, and possibly carbon capture and storage appear to be able to achieve substantial climate benefits in the second half of this century; however, natural gas cannot."


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