Mind the climate gap

By Dawn Stover | November 25, 2014

Hurray for US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping, who on November 12 announced new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the two countries that are the world’s biggest carbon polluters.

Yippee for Obama’s “coming climate onslaught,” as Politico calls it, which will phase in new rules for power-plant emissions, ground-level ozone (which causes smog), and coal ash disposal.

And a big round of thanks to the 30 nations that met recently in Berlin and pledged something close to their $10 billion target for the Green Climate Fund, which is intended to help impoverished countries that are most at risk from climate change, but least to blame for causing it.

That’s all well and good, if overdue, but we can now conclude the ballyhoos and attaboys and return to our regularly scheduled program: The reality show. Never mind that the recent announcements are only pledges. Ignore the fact that a Republican Congress is unlikely to allocate the funding promised by Obama. There’s a much bigger problem: There is still an enormous emissions gap between what has been promised and what is needed. And it’s growing a little bigger every day.

Too little, too late. Headlines called the US-China agreement “ambitious,” “bold,”  “aggressive,” and “a game changer.” But if you look closely at the language, it says only that the United States and China intend to achieve their respective targets. And even though China said it intends to reach peak emissions “around 2030” (not by 2030, as many media outlets have reported), which would be earlier than Chinese officials had previously indicated, the agreement does not say how high emissions will be permitted to climb before they peak. Perhaps most important, the agreement refers only to future actions, not to anything that will happen immediately: The two countries “will work together.” What the presidents actually announced was what they intend to be “their respective post-2020 actions on climate change.”

Post-2020 and post-2014 may not sound all that different, but they are worlds apart, and not just because Obama’s presidency will be long over by 2020. When it comes to reducing emissions, timing is everything. The longer it takes to begin reductions, the harder and riskier and more costly it will be. If concerted action is postponed by even a few years, some effects of climate change—the extinction of species and the loss of glaciers, for example—could become irreversible on any human time scale.

The Emissions Gap Report 2014, recently published by the United Nations Environment Programme, analyzes the gap between what countries have pledged to do about carbon pollution and what is actually needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level, as per international agreement. In a nutshell, closing this gap requires decisive action and no further delay. “The lower the annual emissions in the immediate future, including in the years up to 2020, the relatively higher they can be later, and the longer the time we have before exhausting the emissions budget,” the UN report observes. “Hence taking more action now reduces the need for taking more extreme action later.”

“Without additional policies, global emissions will increase hugely up to at least 2050,” the report warns. That’s too late. According to the report, annual emissions would have to fall by about 55 percent between 2010 and 2050 to have a good chance of limiting the global temperature increase to 2 degrees during the 21st century. That clock started ticking four years ago, and a number of countries are not living up to the pledges they have already made.

Good news, bad news. Despite the dire necessity of prompt action, many environmental groups continue to paint a picture of “good news on energy” and are loathe to talk about any actions that might impair economic growth. While it is true that there have been significant improvements in energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy in the United States, these gains fall far short of what’s truly needed to avert dangerous warming. Last year’s increase in US energy consumption shows no signs of reversing course in 2014.

Now the bad news: Today’s technologies can’t save us, according to Google, the company that in 2007 not only began purchasing large amounts of renewable energy but also launched an effort to figure out how to stave off climate change with improvements to existing renewable energy technologies. “We now know that to be a false hope,” report two Google engineers who worked together on the project. “Truly disruptive technologies are what our planet needs,” they write, by which they mean things like cheap fusion and custom crops that would suck carbon out of the air. In other words, things that haven’t been invented yet—and probably aren’t likely to be invented anytime soon.

The engineers are right about the problem but wrong about the solution. If they’d take off the Google Glass and stop fixating on technology, they might see that there are plenty of other solutions that are easier, quicker, and cheaper. They’re spelled out in the UN gap report and elsewhere: Adjust fuel prices—with a carbon tax, for example—to reflect the cost of climate change. End subsidies for fossil fuels. Improve energy efficiency. And beef up government support for developing low-carbon resources.

Even with existing technology, it’s possible to make significant advances. The energy company NRG, for example, just announced that it will reduce emissions 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050 by taking steps such as shutting coal-fired plants and expanding rooftop solar production.

Solution aversion. The key to progress, whether for a company like NRG or an entire country, is translating intentions into policies—preferably simple ones that can be enacted immediately. As Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said in his most recent of dozens of climate speeches on the Senate floor, a carbon tax would be “much more efficient and predictable than complex regulations.”

A recent study, however, shows that the reason more Republicans than Democrats deny the existence of human-caused climate change is because they fear the cure, whether it be taxation or regulation. The Duke University researchers who conducted the study call this phenomenon “solution aversion.”

Perhaps the solutions-averse would be more likely to embrace carbon pricing if they had a better understanding of what it will take to cross the emissions gap—and what will happen if we don’t. Baby steps aren’t enough. This is going to require a full-throttle, Evel Knievel-style flying leap and an unprecedented level of international momentum and cooperation. Anything less and we’ll just be driving off a cliff.

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