It doesn’t make climate change any less urgent a global priority, but a paper published last month in the journal Energy Economics is raising questions about the coal consumption assumptions in the high-end global warming scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
University of British Columbia PhD candidate Justin Ritchie’s paper focused on the IPCC’s RCP 8.5 scenario, the most extreme in the modelling series for its Fifth Assessment Report, in which coal use increases tenfold by 2100.
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“To get to the dark future of RCP 8.5, Ritchie found, you’d have to burn more coal than anyone should expect to be dug up,” Bloomberg reports. “This pathway for future warming, often considered a business-as-usual scenario, wasn’t likely.”
“For the past quarter-century, high emission baselines have been the focus of research, explicitly or implicitly shaping national policy benchmarks, such as estimates for the social cost of carbon,” notes his paper, co-produced with UBC professor Hadi Dowlatabadi. Based on a more realistic assessment of accessible coal reserves, the assumption of “a virtually unlimited backstop supply has misinformed a generation of long-term energy scenarios.”
“When I first found all this out, in 2015, it was somewhat of an existential crisis in a way,” Ritchie told the news agency. “I said, ‘Oh man, am I really right about this?'”
Wesleyan University economics and environmental studies professor Gary Yohesaid the paper is consistent with real-world trends in coal use. “The quotable take on that is it doesn’t matter what Donald Trump says about opening coal mines,” he said. “He’s not going to generate any more jobs for coal miners, because who’s going to open those mines?”