A recently released draft report (PDF) prepared for the United Nations makes an ambitious attempt at showing how 15 major carbon-emitting countries, including the United States and China, can make deep reductions in their emissions to help keep global temperatures from increasing more than 2°C above preindustrial levels — a goal at the heart of international climate negotiations. Prepared by a group of independent international experts, it confirms that a variety of low-carbon technology solutions are already available.
However, given the planet’s current high emission trajectory, sharply curbing carbon emissions in line with the 2°C goal may be just barely technologically feasible — with a lot of effort — and only provided countries quickly adopt a robust set of policies to drive that outcome.
Progress on this front, unfortunately, is checkered. Australia’s repeal of its carbon tax last month is a stark example of shorter-term, narrow political priorities taking precedence over global interests in the fight against climate change. China, on the other hand, is considering a mandatory cap on coal use, though the speed and scope of its implementation is still up in the air.
The success of upcoming climate negotiations, aimed at reaching a global agreement in Paris next year, will depend on harnessing the political will, particularly among high-carbon-emitting countries, to make the right policy choices. It’s going to require countries to put aside narrow, short-term political and corporate interests and come together to reach an agreement that is in our joint best interests.
Solutions we have
We’ve long known how to reduce global warming emissions: ramp up energy efficiency, transition to renewable and low-carbon energy sources and cut emissions from agriculture, tropical deforestation and land use. These solutions are already being deployed globally, but policies are needed to rapidly scale them up alongside further low-carbon technology innovation.
The report’s overall message — that deep reductions in carbon emissions are possible using technology solutions that are largely available today — echoes that of previous reports, including by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. But it also provides valuable country-specific insights on reducing carbon output, depending on, say, how resource-rich the country is or how much public support there is for options such as nuclear energy.
For instance, in Australia, emissions from mining and manufacturing make up a fairly large share — more than one-third — of its greenhouse gas emissions; its key steps will thus be to reduce economic dependence on coal and oil production, expand energy efficiency and renewable energy (particularly solar) and shift to electrification or use of biofuels for industrial processes. Reducing or sequestering emissions from agriculture and forestry (nearly 20 percent of Australia’s emissions) will also be critical. But the country’s recent repeal of its carbon tax, far from incentivizing reduction of carbon emissions, takes it precisely in the wrong direction.
China’s challenge, on the other hand, is maintaining much-needed economic progress, which is currently being driven in large part by the very sectors that are emitting the most carbon, such as electricity generation and cement, iron and steel production. To sharply curb carbon emissions, it must develop greater energy efficiency, shift away from energy-intensive industries and move toward renewable energy and nuclear power, increased carbon capture and storage (CCS, separating and locking away waste CO2 so it does not enter the atmosphere) and electrification of energy use. The country’s launch of seven carbon pricing pilot programs is a step in the right direction; they have already contributed to a 3.5 percent drop (5.3 million tons) in Shanghai’s emissions from 2011 to 2013. Many experts believe (PDF) China will have a national carbon-pricing program in place by 2020.
One test of political momentum will be in the emission reduction commitments countries make ahead of the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Paris. These voluntary pledges, with emissions reduction targets in 2025 through 2030, are meant to build toward a post-2020 global agreement and will include financing for adaptation and technology deployment in developing countries.
Will the U.S. do its share?
As a leading source of global warming emissions, the U.S. must set a high bar for action. The report suggests that the U.S. could cut its CO2 emissions from fossil fuels 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 through a combination of actions: enhancing energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and industry; shifting to renewable energy, nuclear energy and coal and natural gas with CCS; and increasing the electrification of energy use in the transportation, residential, commercial and industrial sectors.
Action by Congress to put a price on carbon is the single most important step that could help reduce U.S. emissions.
The power sector must play a significant role in driving down U.S. emissions. The draft report analyzes multiple scenarios for lowering emissions using varying levels of renewable and nuclear energy deployment and CCS, but it makes one thing clear: The U.S. must completely transition away from high-carbon conventional coal. Recent research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that it’s possible: Renewable energy can supply 80 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2050.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever draft carbon standards for power plants, issued on June 2, is a first step toward a lower-carbon electric sector. While the draft standard leaves room for improvement in its emissions reduction and renewable energy deployment targets, it creates a flexible framework for states to shift toward cost-effective, cleaner electricity sources. Analysis that a colleague and I have done shows that a strong carbon standard, including a significant role for renewable energy and energy efficiency, could cut power plant emissions in half by 2030. With the costs of wind and solar energy falling dramatically in recent years, this clean energy transition can be done affordably and reliably.
Ultimately, though, action by Congress to put a price on carbon is the single most important step that could help reduce U.S. emissions. The current Congress is unlikely to adopt such a policy. But carbon pricing is already working in several Northeast states and California, driving emissions reductions and delivering benefits from the investment of carbon revenues. The EPA’s draft carbon standard leaves room for states and regions to use such programs as a way of meeting its emission reduction requirements. Momentum toward a national price on carbon will build over time as these programs continue to succeed. A portion of the revenues should in turn be used to assist coal miners and communities affected by the transition away from coal.
The 2°C target
The authors of the U.N. interim report make clear that the routes to decarbonization that they have analyzed so far are not sufficient on their own to make staying below 2°C likely but that they provide a substantial down payment on that goal. The final report will no doubt present more options for doing so. For example, the draft version focuses primarily on energy-related emission reductions; a more comprehensive treatment of ways to reduce land use emissions in the final report could ensure that all opportunities to cut emissions are pursued.
But the window to meet the 2°C goal is shrinking, as recent reports from the World Bank, IEA and the United Nations Environment Program have pointed out. Our failure to cut emissions to date is setting us on a path that could lead to a much higher temperature increase. The resultant risks fall disproportionately on poorer communities globally — those least responsible for emissions.
A recent journal article co-authored by my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “A Climate Policy Narrative for a Dangerously Warming World,” points out the dangers of using 2°C as the sole metric of success or failure for climate policies. Whether or not we meet that particular goal, we must reduce emissions as much — and as quickly — as possible to limit the risks of climate change. Every fraction of a degree we can avoid matters. We must also realistically prepare for the economic, health and social effects that are likely to come our way because of climate change locked in by our past emissions, such as worsening heat waves, droughts and coastal flooding.
The final version of the draft report, due next spring, will be a timely gauge for measuring the adequacy of countries’ offers in the lead-up to the Paris talks. The coming year is thus a critical test of global cooperation and political will to cut emissions quickly and deeply. Here in the U.S., policymakers should support strong policies to reduce heat-trapping emissions, including strong power plant carbon standards, while setting up a national resilience fund to help communities cope with the effects of extreme weather, wildfires and sea level rise. Without such action, we would be leaving our children and grandchildren a gravely altered and more dangerous world.