Roger Pielke Contributor
I research and write about science, policy and politics.
More than a decade ago, Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner characterized climate policy as an “auction of promises” in which politicians “vied to outbid each other with proposed emissions targets that were simply not achievable.” For instance, among Democrats competing for the presidency in 2020, several, including Joe Biden, have committed to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Candidate Andrew Yang bid 2049, and Cory Booker topped that by offering 2045. Bernie Sanders has offered a 71% reduction by 2030.
One reason that we see this “auction of promises” is that the targets and timetables for emissions reductions are easy to state but difficult to comprehend. Here I’ll present what net-zero carbon dioxide emissions for 2050 actually means in terms of the rate of deployment of carbon-free energy and the coincident decommissioning of fossil fuel infrastructure.
To conduct this analysis I use the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which presents data on global and national fossil fuel consumption in units called “million tons of oil equivalent” or mtoe. In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 mtoe in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019. (I ignore so-called negative emissions technologies, which do not presently exist at scale.)
Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050. To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of >1 mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years. Achieving net-zero also requires the corresponding equivalent decommissioning of more than 1 mtoe of energy consumption from fossil fuels every single day.
Another important number to consider is the expected increase in energy consumption in coming decades. The International Energy Agency currently projects that global energy consumption will increase by about 1.25% per year to 2040. That rate of increase in energy consumption would mean that the world will require another ~5,800 mtoe of energy consumption by 2050, or about another 0.5 of an mtoe per day to 2050. That brings the total needed deployment level to achieve net-zero emissions to about 1.6 mtoe per day to 2050.
The concept of an mtoe is pretty hard for anyone to get their head around. So let’s put the mtoe into a more comprehensible unit, a nuclear power plant and specifically the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead, Florida. The amount of energy reflected in 1 mtoe is approximated by that produced by the Turkey Point nuclear plant over a year.
So the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 Turkey Point nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a Turkey Point nuclear plant worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.
I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. The figure below illustrates the challenge.