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The technologies needed to halt global warming for 50 years already exist, according to research published today (13 August) in Science. The study’s authors, Stephen Pacala and Rob Socolow, say implementing them should begin immediately.

The study focuses on the role of carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are burnt. Carbon dioxide is the main ‘greenhouse gas’ responsible for global warming and efforts to reduce emissions are seen as the main way to address human induced climate change.

The researchers identified 15 technologies that either store carbon, or provide energy without producing carbon emissions, or improve the efficiency of carbon-based energy supplies. They say that large-scale use of any one of these has the potential to reduce global carbon emissions by at least one billion tonnes per year by 2054.

Options available include renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, switching of fuel from coal to nuclear or natural gas supplies, storage of carbon dioxide produced by power plants, more efficient use of car fuel and electricity, increasing the global forested area, and use of 'biomass' fuels, such as ethanol.

Current yearly global carbon dioxide emissions contain seven billion tonnes of carbon. But that figure is expected to double in the next 50 years due to increasing populations and energy demands.

Implementing a combination of the technologies could, say Pacala and Socolow, reduce carbon emissions by enough to keep them at today’s levels.

"It certainly explodes the idea that we need to do research for a long time before getting started," says Pacala.

For the existing technologies to work, say the scientists, they would first need to be scaled up. To reduce carbon emissions by a billion tonnes using wind power, for instance, we would need 50 times as many windmills as we have today.

To succeed, there would need to be wide deployment of the technologies in the developing world says Socolow.

"Developing countries shouldn't sit around," Socolow told SciDev.Net. "It's important for China and India, for instance, to get in front on cleaner coal power and carbon storage."

But, says Socolow, in some cases, developing countries are the places that 'carbon smart' technologies have been used on a large scale already. There are opportunities for more developing countries to adopt these technologies on a broad scale before industrialised nations do so.

"Brazil is an example of such leapfrogging," says Socolow. The country is already a leading user of biofuel, produced from sugarcane. South Africa, meanwhile, is a leading producer of synthetic fuel — or 'synfuel' — from coal and has the world's largest production facility. Two hundred facilities of that size would reduce carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2054.

The study does not provide an estimate of the cost of implementing the technologies it recommends. But though Socolow acknowledges the price will be high, he says that addressing carbon emissions by more efficient building should provide an "enormous stimulus for industry". There are plenty of money making prospects related to production of what would be needed to reduce carbon emissions, such as two million windmills or millions of hydrogen-fuelled cars, he adds.

"We don't have to time to do things wrong for 50 years and then try to do things right," Socolow told SciDev.Net. "Let's get on with doing things carbon smart all over the world."

Pacala and Socolow published their research today (13 August) in Science. The research is part of Princeton Environmental Institute’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, a project funded by US$20 million of grants from BP and the Ford Motor Company. 

Link to full paper by Pacala and Socolow in Science

Link to background information from the Carbon Mitigation Initiative

Reference: Science 305, 968 (2004)

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