300 billion tons of carbon emissions 'are locked in'

"Climate change may ruin the future but it's not likely to mess up your evening," as Steve Davis puts it in the video above.

And that truism is the great get-out clause for politicians. Do nothing, safe in the knowledge you'll be long-gone and enjoying your retirement on a beach someplace by the time the piper has to be paid – even if sea level rises mean that beach was previously halfway up a mountain.

Davis from UC Irvine and Rob Socolow of Princeton University measured how much carbon dioxide has already been "committed" to the atmosphere from existing power plants round the world. The answer? 300 billion tons.*

About two-thirds of these emissions are due to coal-burning stations.

But that figure is just as of today. The "carbon commitment" is growing at 4% a year as new plants are built. As Socolow says

We've been hiding what's going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world's capital investments ... the relentlessness of coal-based industrialization [is] long underway and showing no sign of abating.

The carbon dioxide emissions that will come from existing power plants represent a substantial portion of the emissions budget that we need to meet if we are to keep temperature rises at or below 2 degrees – which means we would have to reduce other sources of carbon even more than we thought.

Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton suggest in their report, published in Environmental Research Letters, that the findings could be used by policymakers to evaluate the long-term climate impacts of current investments in infrastructure.

Well, good luck with that...

*Corrected from earlier version. See comments.

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