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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

Indeed, focusing on those national interim efforts is becoming an integral part of international climate talks, noted Christina Fugueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in an interview on the eve of interim talks in Bonn back in April. Negotiations are taking place under the UNFCCC's aegis.

The IEA's proposals are intended to fill what has been dubbed "the ambition gap," meaning the gap between what countries have already agreed to do and what will be required by 2020 to stay on the 2-degree path.

In advance of global climate talks in Warsaw in November, negotiators – and not just environmental groups trying to button-hole them – "are saying: Let us take a look at everything that we are doing. Let us learn from that. Let us bring it to the fore and figure out how we are going to take that to scale in a timely fashion to that we can actually bridge that gap," Ms. Fugueres said.

The IEA report indeed shows that in the energy sector, responsible for two-thirds of the greenhouse-gas emissions globally, major emitters are making progress.

In the US, for instance, greenhouse-gas emissions for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced has fallen since 2003 to mid-1990s levels, a decline driven by economic downturn but also by the increased availability of relatively inexpensive natural gas extracted from once-marginal reservoirs by fracturing, or "fracking." Natural gas releases about half the CO2 that coal does for each megawatt-hour of electricity produced, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

From 2011 to 2012, US CO2 emissions from energy production dropped by 200 million tons. Indeed, the US and the European Union were the only two entities to see emissions fall during that period.

Meanwhile, in China, which is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the growth rate in CO2 emissions from generating electricity eased from nearly 900 grams per kilowatt-hour in 2003 to just under 750 grams in 2012, meaning that as China adds to its electric output it is emitting proportionately less carbon to do so.

Still, while the growth rate in emissions is slowing, emissions overall are still rising. Between 2011 to 2012, China's CO2 emissions from energy production grew by 300 million tons.

In addition, at their weekend summit in Rancho Mirage, Calif., President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping agreed to cut emissions of another potent class of greenhouse gases – hyrdofluorocarbons (HFCs). Although far less abundant than atmospheric CO2 , atom for atom HFCs are from 140 to 11,700 times more effective over a 100-year period at absorbing and re-radiating heat than CO2 .

Meanwhile, in May daily concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 atoms of C02 for every 1 million atoms of atmosphere, as measured at a long-running sampling station on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. That's a level the planet hasn't seen in several million years, when the climate was far warmer. The concentrations at Mauna Loa are recorded after deducting CO2 emissions from the volcano.

Averaged across several measuring sites globally, however, monthly CO2 concentrations are a few part-per-million lower. But either way emissions are on a trajectory that if left unchecked could top 450 ppm by the middle of the century, several researchers say. Stabilizing concentrations at 450 ppm would leave a 50-50 chance of holding global average temperatures to the 2-degree C. target.

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