A new study by researchers at the Columbia Climate School suggests that “going green” in architecture may in fact generate more carbon emissions by itself. It is the very first study that estimates the cost of a green transition not in dollars, but in greenhouse gases.
The researchers’ thesis is that moving the world energy system away from fossil fuels and into renewable sources will generate emissions seeing as the move requires construction of wind turbines, solar panels and other new infrastructure; some of which need energy coming from the fossil fuels we are trying to get rid of.
However, the study asserts that if this infrastructure can be put on line quickly, those emissions would dramatically decrease, because far more renewable energy early on will mean far less fossil fuel needed to power the changeover. The study appeared this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The message is that it is going to take energy to rebuild the global energy system, and we need to account for that,” said lead author Corey Lesk, who did the research as a Ph.D. student at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Any way you do it, it’s not negligible. But the more you can initially bring on renewables, the more you can power the transition with renewables.”
According to Kevin Krajick, “The researchers calculated possible emissions produced by energy use in mining, manufacturing, transport, construction and other activities needed to create massive farms of solar panels and wind turbines, along with more limited infrastructure for geothermal and other energy sources. Previous research has projected the cost of new energy infrastructure in dollars — $3.5 trillion a year every year until 2050 to reach net-zero emissions, according to one study, or up to about $14 trillion for the United States alone in the same period, according to another”
But because this study was made based on emissions, researchers estimate that these activities will produce 185 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2100, the equivalent to five or six years of current global emissions. However, if the world builds the same infrastructure fast enough to limit warming to 2 degrees, those emissions would be halved to 95 billion tons.
The researchers point out that all their estimates are probably quite low for several reasons. For one, they do not account for materials and construction needed for new electric-transmission lines, or resource-intensive products. Second, they did not include the cost of replacing gas- and diesel- powered vehicles with electric ones, or making existing buildings more energy efficient.
The study also reiterates that they looked only at carbon-dioxide emissions, not other GHG such as methane or nitrous oxide.
“Despite these limitations, we conclude that the magnitude of CO2 emissions embedded in the broader climate transition are of geophysical and policy relevance,” the authors write. “Transition emissions can be greatly reduced under faster-paced decarbonization, lending new urgency to policy progress on rapid renewable energy deployment.”