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Global warming: Not too late to rein in climate change, group says

The International Energy Agency urges governments to take interim steps to reduce emissions even before a hoped-for climate treaty, saying aggressive measures can still limit global warming.

By Staff writer / June 10, 2013

A flock of Geese fly past the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets near Emmett, Kan., Dec. 2012.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File

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Over the next seven years, aggressive efforts to tackle greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, refineries, and pipelines, and especially to boost energy efficiency, could still keep the world on track to meet its goal of holding increases in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

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What’s more, those efforts need not come at the expense of a profitable energy sector, a concern that has fueled opposition to international agreements on curbing emissions and slowing climate change.

That's the conclusion the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has reached after reviewing rising global emissions trends from energy production, rising greenhouse-gas concentrations in general, and the glacial efforts to craft a new global climate treaty by 2015, to take effect in 2020.

Eight years have passed since the first attempt at a global climate treaty – the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – took effect. It's first four-year enforcement period ended last year. Throughout the pact's torturous negotiations and implementation, however, emissions have continued to climb.

The pace has even topped some of the highest emissions trajectories climate researchers and economists developed as tools to evaluate the level of effort needed to deal with global warming, as well as the consequences of inaction.

Even with climate policies currently in place globally and nationally, emissions of greenhouse gases in 2020 are projected to be 4 billion tons higher than they should be if nations are intent on giving themselves a 50-50 chance of holding the rise in global average temperatures to 2 degrees C, above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the IEA notes. At global climate talks negotiators have settled on the 2-degree target in order to minimize the harmful effects of global warming.

The agency estimates that the aggressive global approach it recommends could slash that 2020 emissions excess to a far more manageable 900 million tons.

Some 49 percent of that reduction would come from tighter energy-efficiency standards on everything from cars and home appliances to industrial motors and heating and cooling equipment. Another 21 percent could come from reducing reliance on – or simply not building – coal-fired power plants that use the least-efficient technology. Some 18 percent of the emissions reductions would come from plugging methane leaks at oil and natural-gas refineries and in pipelines. Finally, 12 percent of the reductions could come from a partial reduction in subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry.

“We identify a set of proven measures that could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, the report’s lead author, in a statement. “Rapid and widespread adoption could act as a bridge to further action, buying precious time while international climate negotiations continue.”

In one sense, the report offers proposals that already are widely seen as arrows in the climate-change quiver. But the report also suggests that these are far more affordable than some have suggested, according to World Resources Institute President Andrew Steer.

"The common assumption is that action to reduce emissions is prohibitively expensive," he said in a statement. But, he added, "The IEA's new report offers affordable and common sense measures to rein in energy-related emissions."

Quite apart from its impact on emissions, the IEA's approach also could build support for the heavier lifting that is likely to come in a 2015 agreement.

The IEA is offering a "let's get started" plan, adds Gregory Nemet, a political scientist who focuses on climate, energy, and resource issues at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The plan urges individual governments to adopt affordable, interim policies, such as improved fuel efficiency standards, to make the goals of any future climate treaty more achievable.

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