Vaclav Smil says the idea that the world could possibly transform its fossil-fuel based energy system in time to remain below the atmospheric CO2 concentration target of 450 ppm is not connected to reality. One big reason: new coal-fired generation in Asia. He illustrates his point with a striking comparison of the amount of emissions theoretically prevented by wind power in the US to the amount added by new coal burning in China:
The numbers are sobering. Between 2004 and 2009 the United States added about 28 GW of wind turbines. That’s the equivalent of fewer than 10 GW of coal-fired capacity, given the very different load factors. During the same period China installed more than 30 times [PDF] as much new coal-fired capacity in large central plants, facilities that have an expected life of at least 30 years. In 2010 alone China’s carbon-dioxide emissions increased by nearly 800 million metric tons, an equivalent of close to 15 percent of the U.S. total. In the same year the United States generated almost 95 terawatt-hours of electricity from wind, thus theoretically preventing the emission of only some 65 million tons of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, China is adding 200 GW of coal-fired plants by 2015, during which time the United States will add only about 30 GW of new wind capacity, equivalent to less than 15 GW of coal-fired generation. Of course, the rapid increase in the burning of Asian coal will eventually moderate, but even so, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cannot possibly stay below 450 ppm.