WASHINGTON — The latest report from the United Nations climate change body, released this week, makes clear the good, the bad and the ugly about one of the world's most intractable problems.
As things stand today, the world will be hard pressed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of global warming during the rest of the century. That's the ugly.
In the 20-odd years since global warming leapt on the international stage at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janiero global greenhouse-gas emissions have not only kept growing, they're growing at an ever-faster clip. That's the bad.
Now, the world's hopes for limiting temperature increases and minimizing catastrophes such as rising sea levels and devastating droughts depend to a large extent on what steps developing economies take to fundamentally change the way they use energy. And that, curiously enough, could be the good.
This week, the final, full draft report from Working Group III of the International Panel on Climate Change came out. (U.N. officials had released tidied up, trimmed down summaries of that latest consensus among climate scientists earlier.) The report's purpose is not to dive into all the contentious and sometimes controversial science behind climate change, but rather to lay out what the world can do about it. And in dense, committee-edited prose, the sprawling report makes clear that the world is still headed very much in the wrong direction.
"The current trajectory of global annual and cumulative emissions of [greenhouse gases] is inconsistent with widely discussed goals of limiting global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level," the report found.
"We need to decrease the [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere, and to do that, we need to bring emissions down dramatically, but right now global emissions are increasing," explained Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, which advocates market-based solutions for climate change. "This is a freakishly big problem."
While computer models show that the world could conceivably slash carbon emissions and stabilize temperatures, that would require prompt, unanimous, radical action by nearly all nations. That, to say the least, is unlikely: "The assumptions needed to have a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees are very difficult to satisfy in real world conditions," the report found.
That is due, in large part, to the fact that global greenhouse gas emissions just keep rising, despite growing awareness in most countries that pumping more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leads to rising temperatures. Global emissions rose an average of 2.2 percent per year from 2000 to 2010, up sharply from an annual average growth rate of 1.3 percent from 1970 to 2000.
Global emissions keep rising because over the last decade, the center of gravity of the world economy has shifted away from developed, relatively efficient economies such as Europe and the United States toward fast-growing, relatively inefficient economies such as China and India. The problem is compounded, in part, because factories in countries such as China now produce a host of goods for export that rich countries use to make themselves; that means that, in essence, the rich world has outsourced a portion of its own greenhouse-gas emissions to developing countries.
Since the last big UN climate report came out in 2007, developing countries have passed developed countries to become the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. The global emissions total in 2010 hit 49.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (which translates other greenhouse gases such as methane into carbon dioxide), the highest level to date, the report found. That makes it more difficult, and more expensive, to meet climate goals.
"If you're trying to stabilize 2 degrees Celsius in this century, then every five years it's going to get more difficult, because the rate of decrease has to be greater and there's already a larger accumulated stock in the atmosphere," said Robert Stavins, a climate-policy expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center and a contributor to the latest IPCC report.
Going forward, that means that the developing world will have to bear the brunt of responsibility for curbing emissions, if the world is to come anywhere close to its target of limiting carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million (compared with just over 400 parts per million today).
On the surface, that could be worrisome. Developing countries have spent years arguing that since rich countries are responsible for centuries' worth of greenhouse-gas emissions, they shouldn't have to do the heavy lifting of curbing pollution now when they are prioritizing economic development and trying to combat poverty. That blame game is responsible, in large part, for the lack of progress that has plagued international climate negotiations over the last decade. Meanwhile, China's breakneck growth has fueled a massive increase in consumption of coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels.
And to date, rich countries have been more active in trying to tackle emissions. Europe has a cap-and-trade scheme meant to rein in emissions from the power sector, as well as a host of other rules such as hefty taxes on motor fuels and mandates to use renewable energy, all meant to make economies less dirty.
While the United States has not been able to pass comprehensive, European-style climate legislation, it has taken a spate of actions, such as emissions limits on power plants and tough state rules to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The natural-gas boom (as well as the recession) has also helped the United States cut energy-sector emissions levels to the lowest levels in two decades.
But there are tantalizing hints in the latest IPCC report that developing countries could make emissions reductions dovetail with things they actually want to do or need to do. That includes improving air quality and reducing deadly pollution, enhancing energy security, and unwinding fiscally disastrous energy subsidies that encourage profligate use of dirty energy.
Air quality, for instance, is the principal driver of China's efforts to clean up its energy sector, which will have as a byproduct fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The notorious smog that blankets Beijing and other northern Chinese cities doesn't just cost billions of dollars in health care and shorten lives; by sparking popular unrest, air pollution also represents a potentially direct threat to the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power.
All that explains official Chinese efforts to cap national coal consumption, heavily underwrite the expansion of renewable energy such as wind and solar power, and increase the use of nuclear power and natural gas in the electricity system. China has also launched a handful of regional cap-and-trade programs, putting a price on pollution. (Of course, there are fears that China's anti-smog push could lead to the use of even worse alternatives, from a climate-change standpoint, such as synthetic gas from coal.) India, for its part, has slapped a small tax on each ton of coal.
Energy security is another way that tackling climate change could bring additional benefits, the report concludes. By reducing the role that imported, dirty fuels play in an economy, policymakers can kill two birds with one stone. Chinese leaders, for example, are obsessed with the security of their energy supplies. China is now the world's biggest oil importer; much of that oil goes through sea-lanes controlled by other navies. Volatile prices for imported fuels can also wreak havoc with consumers and upend growth plans.
As the IPCC report puts it, "the majority of mitigation scenarios show improvements in terms of the diversity of energy sources and reduction of energy imports, resulting in energy systems that are less vulnerable to price volatility and supply disruptions."
One of the best ways to spur reductions in carbon emissions, economists agree, is a carbon tax. That would penalize carbon emissions, and give businesses and consumers an incentive to use less energy, or to use cleaner energy. Politically, though, a carbon tax has proven contentious in many countries.
Ironically, instead of penalizing the use of dirty energy, the world heavily subsidizes it to the tune of more than half a trillion dollars a year. That leads to wasteful use of fuel for transportation and power generation, undercuts energy efficiency, and costs governments huge sums of cash.
Part of Egypt's fiscal woes, for instance, are due to heavy energy subsidies given to the population, which eat up about one-quarter of the budget. Governments across the Middle East and North Africa face a similar dilemma: Energy subsidies are eating up government cash and gobbling up precious energy reserves, but rolling them back could spark popular unrest.
Last week in Washington, the heads of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the U.N. all called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and the use of a carbon tax to tackle both fiscal challenges and rising emissions. That double-whammy could end up going a long way toward meeting global climate goals and restoring some fiscal sanity to cash-strapped governments.
"Right now, the average price per ton of CO2 globally is minus $15" due to the subsidies. "It's the wrong sign; forget all the quibbles about just how high the price of carbon should be, let's get the sign right first," said Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund.
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