Climate action now — Can we keep a 2-degree cap on global warming?

June 10th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

I’m sorry, Presidents Obama and Xi, but phasing down hydrofluorocarbons — HFCs — under the Montreal Protocol isn’t going to cut it. We won’t even get into the details — such as HFCs, a greenhouse gas thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, aren’t currently covered in the protocol and debate on the issue has been going on for several years.

The point is we are past the time for symbolic gestures.

According to the  International Energy Agency, to avoid potentially uncontrolled climate change, the energy sector worldwide must take immediate action to ramp up energy efficiency, limit the construction and use of coal plants, cut methane emissions related to oil and gas production and at least begin some partial cuts to the subsidies that support our fossil fuel-dependent economies.

The IEA lays out these strategies, called its 4-for-2° C scenario, in a new report released Monday entitled, “Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map.”  The report predicts that, without such immediate, broadbased action, the world could be heading for a global temperature increase of 3.6-5.3° Celsius (6.5-9.5° Fahrenheit) compared to the 2° C most climate scientists have set as the more or less sustainable ceiling for global warming.

I say more or less, because, the report says, the impacts of climate change could be more intense and intensive than previously envisioned.

“Some analysis finds, however, that the risks associated with an increase of around 4° C in global temperatures are not associated with a rise of a little over 2° C, while the risks associated with 2° C are now thought to occur with a 1° C rise.”

Carbon dioxide emissions were up 1.4 percent in 2012, reaching a historic high of 31.6 gigatons. One gigaton is 1 billion tons, so you do the math. Moreover, developing countries now account for 60 percent of global emissions, up from their 45 percent share in 2000, the report said. Two-thirds of global emissions come from energy production, with fossil fuels accounting for 80 percent of energy consumed worldwide.

With global temperatures already up .8° C, the IEA argues, the world cannot wait to agree on and implement a climate action plan until 2020, which is the time frame established under last year’s United Nations climate conference in Doha, Qatar.

” . . . urgent action is also required, well before 2020, in order to keep open a realistic opportunity for an efficient and effective international agreement from that date.”

Even with the 4-for-2 plan, the IEA estimates our chances for keeping climate change to 2° C are only 50-50.

In other words, if we’re not moving forward, we’re falling increasingly behind, and the IEA has plenty of figures to back up its case. For example, in 2011, subsidies for fossil fuels world wide totaled $523 billion, about six times more than support for renewables.

“Currently, 15% of global CO2 emission receive an incentive of $110 per tonne (metric ton, 2,240 pounds) in the form of fossil-fuel subsidies while only 8% are subject to a carbon price.”

Delaying stronger climate action till 2020 could avoid $1.5 trillion in carbon-reduction investments, the report says, but also require $5 trillion in additional investment just to get back on track.

Reading the report is an incrementally mind-numbing experience – almost every page has some fact or figure adding to the picture of a world on the brink of changes we will not be able to control and refusing to take sensible, immediately available actions that would show we are ready to take the problem seriously.

But the report adds to the growing number of voices  and events signaling that a fundamental transformation in our energy system is imminent if not already underway. Southern California Edison on Friday announced that it is permanently closing the crippled San Onofre nuclear power plant, triggering a new round of long-term energy planning in the state.  Two days before that, Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, introduced amendments to an energy reform bill, calling for California to increase its renewable power target to 51 percent by 2030.

It is time for big visions, creativity and decisive action. The IEA report says it succinctly.

“It is accordingly evident that if the energy sector is to play an important part in attaining the internationally adopted target to limit average global temperature increase, a transformation will be required in the relationship between economic development, energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. Is such a transition feasible? Analyses conclude that, though extremely challenging, it is feasible.”


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