What if Carbon Emissions Stopped Tomorrow?



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Imagine that aliens landed and gifted us a clean, limitless energy source. And instead of killing each other over this technology, we decided to immediately transform the world into a carbon-free society. This wonderous source would power our homes, industries, cars and planes, and humanity’s annual rate of carbon pollution would almost instantly fall to zero. So if we kicked our carbon addiction tomorrow, what would that mean for global warming?

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Host/Editor-In-Chief: Joe Hanson
Writer: Eli Kintisch
Creative Director: David Schulte
Editors/Animators: Karl Boettcher
Producers: Stephanie Noone & Amanda Fox
Story Editor: Alex Reich
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Produced by PBS Digital Studios
Theme Music: Eric Friend/Optical Audio
Music: APM
Stock images from

Thanks to the funders of Peril & Promise for supporting PBS Digital Studios. Peril & Promise is a national public media initiative from WNET telling human stories of climate change and its solutions. Learn more at

47 thoughts on “What if Carbon Emissions Stopped Tomorrow?

  1. By even evoking the idea that aliens would need to bring the tech to us you create a small idea of impossibility to the task of switching to other energy sources. This criticism is not regarding the overall idea, but of the imaginary scenario. It sends a message of impossibility to the task of reducing carbon emissions which is not true… even if the task is hard. Finding aliens one day is not strictly impossible, but as far as what is known it is far less possible than changing our energy habits.

  2. What if we find a way to counter balance our CO2 pollution? xD
    Imagine we could get plants or air filters of some kind to take all the CO2 in the air and repurpose it. There was this one invention which was a 3D printer which could use Resin made form Air pollution. Maybe we can find a way to solidify CO2 chemically and use it to make everyday appliances. While slowly weeding away from burning the stuff. And replacing it with clean energy sources.

  3. Here's my prediction. Global warming is going to kill off billions of people in the poorest countries. Forests will take over in those areas and bring down the CO2 levels globally. With less people there will be less CO2 produced and the super-forests will be able to deal with it. Problem solved. You think the rich have a problem with this? They know they will survive. Remember, people, the name of the game is capitalism and money is the only thing that matters.

  4. For this to work, we need to unplug the hole in our atmosphere, so the gasses can get out. But we will also need a solution to immediately ''close'' it again, as soon as the job is done.

  5. The planetary thermal hysteresis will continue to provide us with a warming for a few decades if all CO2 production ceased immediately, but solar panels currently take tons of coal to produce, and the concrete or steel production for wind turbines and dams gives off a very large amount of CO2. The only workable solution is to limit CO2 production to what the planet can remove over the course of the same period. This would mean everyone becomes a subsistence farmer with a standard-of-living like native blacks in the bush, or a serious reduction of human numbers with a slightly higher standard-of-living. Neither option appeals to politicians.

    And we're well beyond the 0.8 C increase since the industrial revolution.

  6. A free energy source would get patented and be expensive until the patent expires. Basically almost as expensive as fossil fuel now, because that is what you're willing to pay so profit maximizing will make it about as expensive.
    So even if we invented a free energy source it would take at least 20 years for widespread adoption and stopping carbon emissions.
    As a species, humans are simply too stupid to survive.

  7. Nuclear energy has plenty of benefits which can't be overstated. Obviously, it's theoretically carbon-neutral. Things like fuel transport absolutely do emit some carbon, but its fuel is ridiculously energy-dense, reducing the amount that needs to be transported. It's far more concentrated than solar or wind; a small nuclear power plant can still produce ~1 GW of power, comparable to hundreds of onshore wind turbines or several square kilometers of solar panels. Nuclear also has the benefit of being more consistent, not relying on good sunlight or strong winds, which reduces the "swinginess" of power output. (Speaking of which, power generated by spinning heavy turbines, like nuclear but not like typical solar/wind, builds up a reserve of kinetic energy which helps cushion against swings in power generation/usage. Small benefit, but a benefit.) And so on, and so forth.
    Yes, nuclear has downsides. But no form of energy is perfect, and the biggest downsides of nuclear energy are overstated. Disasters like Fukishima and Chernobyl were complicated by equipment that was obsolete even then, as well as terrible luck (Fukishima) and turning off some safety systems as part of a test (Chernobyl); building plants away from areas where natural disasters are common and being more careful when we test what happens when things go wrong will help things not go wrong as often. As for nuclear waste, we have many proposed solutions. Beyond that, it's not as bad of a situation as it sounds; because the radiation is released over tens of thousands of years, the energy flux is very low. I wouldn't want to eat it, but you can swim in a spent fuel pool without any problems except the reactor's security guards.
    Nuclear isn't a panacea; it shouldn't be our only tool. But it's still useful, and should still be considered as such when talking about how to power a post-carbon world.

  8. Simon Clark did a video about this theme, and it's interesting that everyone thinks if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases, we would somehow instantaneously get to have the climte that was before the industrial revolution. Still we shouldn't discourage people from fighting against climate change

  9. Great video and awesome content like before! What would be more interesting though, would be to consider what kind of impacts it would have if we changed to solely solar and wind power tomorrow. How could we tackle the huge need for storage of electricity? The need for batteries would be huge. What kind of impacts on environment and valuable nature would the mining of raw materials for those batteries have? What options would we have for storing power? Would power-to-gas technologies or even CO2 capture technologies provide more ecological storage? What possibilities would there be in intelligent industry production at the times when electricity is cheapest?

  10. Hey Joe, I hope you're having a nice HOT day. What is it like over 100º over there? I promise to try and stop burping so much so it's not so hot where you live. Here in the bold north we are sitting on a cool 74º so this is really just me being considerate. -Scratchy The Eagle

  11. 5gallons of fuel (32lb) can't make 100lb of CO2 can it? It's been decades since my last chemistry lesson, but isn't there a thing oon conservation of mass? If all the carbon is sourced from the fuel, and all the oxygen is sourced from the air, and after you minus off the weight of the sut, other fuel impurities and exhausts, does the math really add up to 100lb? More than triple the original mass of the fuel?

  12. The goal to bring back CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels would take 100,000 years to happen if we quit emitting CO2 tomorrow?

    On that scale, the earth itself may naturally heat up more than what we've done artificially

  13. I kind of hope that the bad affects of climate change does happen, so that after we and our pollutants are long gone, that future generations in the far future will know that burning fossil fuels = bad things!

  14. First, thorium MSR. Cooks nuclear waste to make them less toxic for a shorter period of time. Carbon-free energy. Thorium is well understood but abandonned for uranium LWR because the thorium cycle yields fewer bomb-making elements… so it's proliferation resistent.

    Second, carbon sequestration with pyrolysis. Turn carbon-rich wastes into charcoal. Can be harnessed for carbon NEGATIVE energy. The charcoal can be sequestered or mixed with sewage to clean the water and activate it as a super-charged soil enhancer. Activated charcoal can be plowed into our agricultural land to make it more productive with less fertilizers.

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