Time Is Running Out “¦ and Five Other Takeaways From the U.N.’s Global Warming Report

The world’s highest-profile climate panel gives a nod to natural gas, pushes a move away from coal, and tells the world’s governments that, so far, their best isn’t good enough.

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world's largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant, so called 'clean coal,' which will store around 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year 2.1 kilometers (7,200 feet) underground. 
National Journal
Ben Geman
April 14, 2014, 5:37 a.m.

Green­house gases are on track to soar far bey­ond levels sci­ent­ists warn will trig­ger some of the most dan­ger­ous ef­fects of glob­al warm­ing, ac­cord­ing to a ma­jor United Na­tions’ cli­mate-pan­el study re­leased Sunday.

The In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change re­port lays out a harsh chal­lenge for the world: To have a “likely” shot at lim­it­ing the plan­et’s tem­per­at­ure rise to 2 de­grees Celsi­us (3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit) above prein­dus­tri­al levels, the world must cut its green­house-gas emis­sions by 40 per­cent to 70 per­cent by 2050 com­pared with 2010 levels — and must get emis­sions to near-zero levels by 2100.

Here are six more key takeaways from the sweep­ing re­port on bat­tling cli­mate change.

We’re Still Do­ing It Wrong, Even if We’re Try­ing Harder: Na­tions world­wide are in­creas­ingly tak­ing steps to stem emis­sions. “In 2012, 67% of glob­al GHG emis­sions were sub­ject to na­tion­al le­gis­la­tion or strategies versus 45% in 2007,” the re­port states. Lots of those ef­forts are in their early stages, so it’s tough to say what their over­all ef­fect will be.

But what’s clear right now is that emis­sions are still rising, along with ef­forts to rein them in. Glob­al emis­sions grew faster between 2000 and 2010 than they did dur­ing the 1970-2000 peri­od, the re­port states.

Time Is Run­ning Out: “Delay­ing mit­ig­a­tion ef­forts bey­ond those in place today through 2030 is es­tim­ated to sub­stan­tially in­crease the dif­fi­culty of the trans­ition to low longer”term emis­sions levels and nar­row the range of op­tions con­sist­ent with main­tain­ing tem­per­at­ure change be­low 2°C re­l­at­ive to prein­dus­tri­al levels,” the re­port states.

Ger­man eco­nom­ist Ottmar Ed­en­hofer, who co­chaired the IP­CC pan­el that pro­duced the study, noted that while “sub­stan­tial” in­vest­ment is needed glob­ally, “avoid­ing fur­ther delays in mit­ig­a­tion and mak­ing use of a broad vari­ety of tech­no­lo­gies can lim­it the as­so­ci­ated costs.”

Slash­ing Emis­sions Won’t Throttle the Eco­nomy: The good news, the IP­CC con­cludes, is that much wider ad­op­tion of car­bon-cut­ting tech­no­lo­gies is pos­sible without slam­ming the brakes on eco­nom­ic growth.

The IP­CC be­lieves that sta­bil­iz­ing at­mo­spher­ic car­bon di­ox­ide at a level con­sist­ent with the 2-de­gree tar­get would trim growth by a me­di­an es­tim­ate of just 0.06 per­cent an­nu­ally this cen­tury, a small frac­tion of a “baseline” growth fore­cast of 1.6 to 3 per­cent per year.

And that tally doesn’t even in­clude eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits of tem­per­ing dan­ger­ous glob­al warm­ing, which is cre­at­ing an ar­ray of harms and risks for hu­man health, eco­sys­tems, food pro­duc­tion in some areas, and more.

Re­new­ables Have Ar­rived, But Still Need Help: The IP­CC says that in the ma­jor­ity of path­ways to sta­bil­ize emis­sions for a 2-de­gree rise, low-car­bon sources such as re­new­ables, nuc­le­ar, and car­bon cap­ture for fossil-fuel power plants must rise from their cur­rent share of 30 per­cent glob­ally to 80 per­cent at mid-cen­tury.

The au­thors note that since their last big re­port in 2007, re­new­ables have got­ten cheap­er and per­form bet­ter, but still need “dir­ect and/or in­dir­ect sup­port” to sig­ni­fic­antly ex­pand their mar­ket share.

A re­lated point: The au­thors en­dorse re­mov­ing sub­sidies for fossil fuels as a way to help stem emis­sions. It’s easi­er said than done, though. The In­ter­na­tion­al En­ergy Agency last year said sub­sidies rose to $544 bil­lion world­wide in 2012, des­pite re­form ef­forts.

Cit­ies Are Very Im­port­ant and a Little Tricky: The num­ber of people liv­ing in cit­ies world­wide is soar­ing; in 2011 a little over half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lived in urb­an areas, and by 2050 that’s ex­pec­ted to reach as high as 69 per­cent, the re­port notes. This provides a “win­dow of op­por­tun­ity” to im­ple­ment the right mix of policies, and those policies will work best when “bundled.”

“Ef­fect­ive mit­ig­a­tion strategies in­volve pack­ages of mu­tu­ally re­in­for­cing policies, in­clud­ing co”loc­at­ing high-res­id­en­tial with high-em­ploy­ment dens­it­ies, achiev­ing high di­versity and in­teg­ra­tion of land uses, in­creas­ing ac­cess­ib­il­ity, and in­vest­ing in pub­lic trans­port and oth­er de­mand-man­age­ment meas­ures,” the re­port states.

Nat­ur­al Gas, Done Right, Is an Ally in the Cli­mate Fight … for Now: The re­port gives a nod to nat­ur­al gas. The world could im­prove its car­bon count by mov­ing away from coal plants to the most mod­ern, high-ef­fi­ciency nat­ur­al-gas plants — provided that the green­house-gas leaks as­so­ci­ated with drilling nat­ur­al gas are min­im­ized.

“GHG emis­sions from en­ergy sup­ply can be re­duced sig­ni­fic­antly by re­pla­cing cur­rent world av­er­age coal”fired power plants with mod­ern, highly ef­fi­cient nat­ur­al-gas com­bined”cycle power plants or com­bined heat and power plants, provided that nat­ur­al gas is avail­able and the fu­git­ive emis­sions as­so­ci­ated with ex­trac­tion and sup­ply are low or mit­ig­ated,” the re­port states.

That may not sit well with swaths of the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment, where sup­port for nat­ur­al gas is on the wane. But the re­ports’ au­thors en­dorse the idea of gas plants, des­pite their emis­sions, as a “bridge” tech­no­logy un­til non­pol­lut­ing sources such as re­new­ables and fossil-fuel plants that trap car­bon emis­sions are the dom­in­ant en­ergy sup­plies.

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