By: John Gilleland, Ph.D, Chief Technology Officer
This week, two startling, yet not-unexpected news items rolled across my desk. First, the Washington Post reported that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere rose above 400 parts per million (ppm) and are not expected to drop below that number in our lifetime. Second, Bloomberg New Energy Finance released a 25-year forecast on global power markets, predicting that we’ve already reached “peak” fossil fuel use, simply because so many diversified sources of energy are coming online.
Research and observation have established a relationship between the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the rise in global temperatures. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over just the last 45 years, global surface temperatures rose at an average rate of about 0.17°C per decade. This is more than twice as fast as the overall 0.07°C per decade rate observed between 1880 and 2015. At the same time, NASA’s observations show that human industrial activities raised atmospheric CO2 levels more than 120 ppm just over the past 150 years.
So, why is sustained 400 ppm of CO2 significant? Because the International Energy Agency and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established in 2014 that 450 ppm of CO2 is the “threshold” beyond which a 2°C rise in global temperatures is inevitable. While a 2°C rise doesn’t sound too bad, projections actually show devastating impacts, such as rising sea levels, more extreme weather, shifting wet/dry regions, reduced river flow, declining crop production, and more.
Despite this dire news, an analysis of the energy sector by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows there is some hope in our ability to affect change. Already, wind and solar energy are becoming cheaper and easier to install. As Bloomberg’s analysts reveal in the New Energy Outlook 2016 report, utility-scale solar already exists, and the capacity factor for wind should be at 41 percent by 2040. They also predict that investment in CO2-generating coal and gas will not rise as quickly as previously thought.
It’s clear to me that we must collectively, as humanity, take action if we are to effectively mitigate the rise in CO2 and prevent a drastic rise in global temperature. The world needs to invest at least $13.1 trillion in zero-carbon power by 2040 if we are to have a shot. TerraPower is proud to be actively working on technologies that will contribute, but the world will need many more such innovative solutions.