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Due to a combination of prudence and morbid curiosity, a great deal of scholarly research (and journalism) about climate change has focused on the worst of all possible worlds. For scientists running climate-economic models, that nightmare scenario has a concrete definition: In 2011, such researchers established four baseline scenarios for the future of greenhouse gas emissions (ranging from the benign to the catastrophic) for the sake of facilitating comparable studies.
The most fearsome — and widely cited — of these baselines, known as “RCP8.5,” imagined a year 2100 in which an overpopulated, technologically underdeveloped humanity is digging up and burning every last piece of coal it can find. Thus, by the turn of the next century, coal — the most carbon-intensive major fuel source — would account for 94 percent of the world’s energy supply. In 2015, that figure was 28 percent.
Scenario - Hypotheticals - Resurgence - Coal - Use
This scenario, and other, less severe hypotheticals that also imagine a resurgence of coal use, have loomed large in both the academic and political debates over climate change. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cited 210 scenarios that assumed humanity would move toward more carbon-intensive forms of energy in the coming decades.
But a new analysis from researchers at the University of British Columbia suggests that this assumption — and the nightmare scenarios that derive from it — merits less attention than it’s been given.
Reasoning - First - Coal - Planet - RCP8
Their reasoning is simple. First and foremost, there probably isn’t enough extractable coal on the planet to make RCP8.5 possible, even if future humans tried to use that filthiest of fossil fuels for virtually all of their energy needs. Second, there’s little basis for thinking that we will become more reliant on carbon-intensive energy sources in the future. For decades, the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to energy produced (i.e., the carbon...
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