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On Earth Day 2013, a planetary report card on global warming

Planetary carbon dioxide concentrations are the highest they've been in the past 800,000 years, an ignominious milestone for Earth Day 2013. Still, the world is making some progress toward addressing global warming.

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Yet if the picture is brighter in Brazil, it's less so in Indonesia, which along with Brazil accounts for 60 percent or more of the globe's tropical forests.

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"I've seen no evidence for a decrease" in deforestation, Asner says. "I've only seen increases."

Meanwhile, the world's top two CO2 emitters – China and the United States, in that order – are looking for ways to improve.

In the US, CO2 emissions fell 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, notes Daniel Lashof, director of the climate and clean-air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental-advocacy group in Washington. Since 2005, annual US emissions have fallen by 12 percent, he adds, even as the economy has grown.

Half the drop in emissions can be traced to reduced energy demand during the Great Recession, he continues. But the other half stems from improved energy efficiency and a switch to cleaner fuels – natural gas replacing coal, and growth in the contribution of renewable sources, such as wind energy.

Wind-generated electricity expanded its share of US electrical production from less than 0.5 percent in 2005 to 3.5 percent of US needs in 2012, even as improved efficiency in appliances, lighting, and other electrical devices flattened demand, Dr. Lashof says.

Higher fuel-economy standards for vehicles also are contributing to declining emissions in the US.

A key step toward reaching President Obama's goal of reducing US emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 would be to extend to existing coal-burning power plants the CO2 emissions standards the US Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing for new coal-fired plants.

Rising natural-gas prices may prompt utilities to burn more coal over the next year, which could lead to a 2 percent increase in US CO2 emissions. But Lashof says with the extension of CO2 emissions standards to existing power plants, in addition to initiatives the White House already has taken, the US would be on track to meet the president's 2020 emission-reduction target.

In China, where emissions grew by 9.9 percent in 2011, the government is talking about implementing a carbon tax, although the plan reportedly has been put off until next year. In the meantime, the country is working toward reducing the amount of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product – the economy's carbon intensity – by 3.7 percent this year.

Each emissions giant has political hurdles to overcome in pursuit of its stated CO2 goals. For China, it's a mismatch between what Beijing wants and what provincial leaders will implement. For the US, it's congressional gridlock on the issue, notes the Union of Concerned Scientists' Meyer.

If warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels is the goal, he says, it's still salvageable. But time is running out.


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