In a hotly anticipated UN climate report issued Friday, the world's leading climate scientists again warned of the rising levels of greenhouse gases being pumped into Earth's atmosphere and fueling global warming.
Behind those rising emissions are two giant energy pumps: the developed world's economic engine and the developing world's economic engine.
The developing world's engine is revving at high speed. Hundreds of millions of people are moving into the middle class, replacing bikes with cars, buying dishwashers and refrigerators, and adopting lifestyles that demand more energy. That growth is happening so fast that climate scientists once again have sounded the alarm.
"Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system," the UN's climate panel said in a preliminary report released Friday. "Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions." The report added that it is "extremely likely" that human activity is a primary driver of global warming – namely in the form of carbon-based fuels that release heat-trapping gases.
But that general gloom shouldn't overshadow the quiet progress that's being made in many parts of the developed world. There, the progress is slow, perhaps due more to a deep recession and a market-driven fuel switch than to specific moves on emissions. Still, it is a sign that societies can make strides toward smarter energy use.
For example, greenhouse-gas emissions in the European Union have fallen 16.5 percent since 1990, according to an October 2012 report by the European Environment Agency. That puts the EU on track to meet its ambitious climate goal set out in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
In the United States, the world's second largest consumer and producer of energy, emissions between 2009 and 2011 fell to their lowest level for any three-year period since the mid-1990s, according to a US State Department's report to the United Nations on climate released Thursday. Key drivers of the change include a sluggish economy, a shift from coal power to natural gas, and more efficient buildings and cars.
"We have bent the climate pollution curve from up to down in the US, and we must continue to make further emissions reductions," Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, says in a telephone interview. "The more pollution reductions the US makes, the more leadership it will be able to exert in the international realm to get countries to make similar reductions."
Already, the US has evolved somewhat from the gas-guzzling, energy-intensive economy it had in the 1990s and early 2000s. Cars are smaller, more fuel-efficient, and less dependent on traditional fuel. Homes are larger, and more gadget-heavy, but use about a quarter less energy than they did 30 years ago. Energy use per person has been steadily dropping since the early 1970s. A new wave of cleantech and efficiency companies are quietly rebuilding after the Great Recession burst the clean-tech bubble of the 2000s.
"Those sort of companies don't get as much press as they did when there was a bubble, but they’re out there," Roy Torbert, a buildings sector consultant for the Rocky Mountain Institute, an efficiency nonprofit based in Colorado, says in a telephone interview. "They’re part of the economic recovery, and their mission is to have this recovery be not only economically prosperous, but – from a climate perspective – sustainable."
Still, the US is not on track to meet its goal of reducing those emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. As it stands now, US greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be only 4.6 percent lower than 2005 levels in 2020, according to the State Department's report.
The Obama administration has pushed for those reductions in the form of clean-energy funding, efficiency standards on appliances and cars and, most recently, limits on carbon emissions from power plants. That targeting of the power sector has stirred opposition from lawmakers, industry, and citizens from energy states where coal underpins local economies.
Politically, the issue of climate change is divisive. Some policymakers in Washington challenge the veracity of the UN's assessment, pointing to a recent pause in global warming. Even among those who agree human activity warms the Earth's atmosphere, some question how perilous the trend is, and say attempts to combat climate change do more harm than good.
Critics are already planning to challenge the president's Climate Action Plan in court and on Capitol Hill. They charge that it will raise electricity prices for residents and businesses alike, slowing an economic recovery that's barely under way. Power plant regulations, critics contend, effectively serve as a ban on a source of power that currently makes up about 40 percent of the nation's electricity mix.
"If these regulations go into effect, American jobs will be lost, electricity prices will soar, and economic uncertainty will grow," Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia said in a statement last week responding to the new regulations. "We need the federal government to work as a partner, not an adversary, and to invest in America’s energy future."
But for the hundreds of scientists from more than 30 countries who contributed to the report, one thing remains certain: Human beings will be better off if they curtail activities that contribute to a changing climate.
The global picture is quite sobering. While energy use within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which represents the developed nations, is projected to grow only 17 percent between 2010 and 2040, outside the OECD, it's expected to rise by 90 percent, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Carbon-heavy coal will likely serve as the dominant source of that growth.
The growing use of coal is a major reason global emissions are expected to rise 46 percent over the next 30 years, according to the IEA.
"We should all be very concerned about that," Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, says in a telephone interview. "Billions of people are off the grid and they want to get on the grid. Part of the reason they're going to coal is because it's already there and it's cheaper."
The solution, according to Mr. Cohen and others, is to leverage public and private enterprise to drive down the cost of renewable energy, making it competitive with traditional fossil fuels.