15 January 2009

State of the World 2009: Time to Cool the Planet Running Out

Environment News Service, January 13, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC  - Ending the emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by 2050 will be necessary to avoid "catastrophic disruption to the world's climate," according to the Worldwatch Institute in its 26th annual assessment, "State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World," released today.

Yet, the independent research organization based in Washington, DC says opportunities abound in renewable energy and efficiency improvements, agriculture and forestry, and the resilience of societies for slowing and managing climate change.

"We're privileged to live at a moment in history when we can still avert a climate catastrophe that would leave the planet hostile to human development and well-being," said Worldwatch Vice President for Programs Robert Engelman, project co-director for State of the World 2009.

"But there's not much time left," Engelman said. "Sealing the deal to save the global climate will require mass public support and worldwide political will to shift to renewable energy, new ways of living, and a human scale that matches the atmosphere's limits."

The assessment holds out hope that the gridlock that has long plagued climate policy can finally be broken with the new administration of President Barack Obama and international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 to craft a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.


Red sunset (Photo by Mads Hansen)

"We can't afford to let the Copenhagen climate conference fail," said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "The outcome of this meeting will be written in the history books - and in the lasting composition of the world's atmosphere."

In his forward to the assessment, 2007 Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, said, "The strongest message from State of the World 2009 is this: if the world does not take action early and in adequate measure, the impacts of climate change could prove extremely harmful and overwhelm our capacity to adapt. At the same time, the costs and feasibility of mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions are well within our reach and carry a wealth of substantial benefits for many sections of society."

Dr. Pachauri is director general of The Energy and Resources Institute and chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore for raising public awareness of climate change.

He will be the keynote speaker at the 13th Annual State of the World Symposium in Washington, DC on January 15.

The Worldwatch report includes contributions from 47 authors. It is based on the latest scientific assessment of the IPCC, which organizes information from thousands of scientists from around the world.

Most scientists agree that Earth's average temperature has already risen by more than 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, with much of that increase attributed to human activities.

Nearly one degree Celsius of additional warming may already be in store, based on past emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that have not yet made their influence felt on surface temperatures.

Half of the carbon dioxide emitted today is expected to remain in the atmosphere a century from now, and much will remain even 10,000 years in the future, scientists predict.

A chapter by climate scientist W. L. Hare concludes that in order to avoid a catastrophic climate tipping point, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak before 2020 and drop 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, with further reductions beyond that date.

Emissions of carbon dioxide would actually need to "go negative," with more being absorbed than emitted," during the second half of this century, Hare advises.


The Wanakbori coal-fired power plant in India's Gujurat state. India has no greenhouse gas emissions limits under the Kyoto Protocol. (Photo courtesy Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Ltd)

Hare's research shows that even a warming of two degrees Celsius poses unacceptable risks to key natural and human systems, including loss of species, major reductions in food-production capacity in developing countries, severe water stress for hundreds of millions of people, and sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

A successful climate strategy will motivate rapid reductions in emissions as well as major investments in adaptation, with both efforts necessarily financed mostly by the world's wealthier countries and people, the book argues.

Such a strategy ultimately will also need to address the warming climate's connection to food production, population growth, and the global economy. Economists have estimated the cost of avoiding dangerous climate change at around $1–2.5 trillion a year for decades to come; yet the costs of not doing so are expected to be far higher.

In order to assess the threat the climate crisis presents and explore innovative and practical solutions, Worldwatch enlisted more authors for this book than for any previous edition of the series, many hailing from the developing countries most vulnerable to climate change. The resulting framework offers a roadmap for a world that not only survives climate change, but emerges more stable, more just, and more prosperous.

The book's opening chapter notes 10 key challenges that must be adopted as part of any successful path to mitigation and climate change adaptation and resilience.

Ten key challenges to avoiding catastrophic climate change

1. Thinking Long-term. At the core of the climate problem is the likelihood that future generations will pay with a deteriorating global environment for the refusal of current generations to live in balance with the atmosphere. Visionary leaders will need to marshal the public to take responsibility for the impacts of today's behavior on the future and to act accordingly.

2. Innovation. The emissions shift will require technologies that break the carbon link to energy consumption with as little sacrifice of price and convenience as possible. A range of renewable technologies can produce electricity and meet heating and cooling needs. Such technologies include buildings that produce more energy than they consume and "smart grids" that use information technology to match renewably produced electricity precisely to demand.

3. Population. Rarely addressed in the context of climate change, future population trends could make the difference between success and failure in the long-term balance of human activities, atmosphere, and climate. The world's population is likely to stop growing and then gradually decline for a period when women gain the full capacity to decide for themselves whether and when to have children.

4. Changing Lifestyles. The assumption that the "good life" requires ever more individual consumption, more meat-eating, ever larger homes and vehicles, and disposable everything will need to fade. A spirit of shared and equitable material sacrifice can replace it - with no loss of what really matters, such as active good health, strong communities, and time with family.

5. Healing Land. Managed for the task, the Earth's soil and vegetation can remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Agricultural landscapes can accomplish this while improving food and fiber production and minimizing the need for artificial fertilizer and fossil-fuel-driven tilling and raising farmer incomes.

6. Strong Institutions. As with the deteriorating global economy, the global nature of climate change demands international cooperation and sound governance. The strength and effectiveness of the United Nations, multilateral banks, and major national governments are essential to addressing global climate change. These institutions - and those emerging from the hoped-for Copenhagen climate agreement in 2009 - require strong public support for their critical work.

7. The Equity Imperative. No climate agreement will succeed without support from those countries that have so far contributed little to human-induced climate change, have low per-capita emissions, and stand to face the biggest challenges in adapting to the coming changes. A pact that is fair to developing and industrialized countries alike is essential.

8. Economic Stability. With the world now fixated on the sputtering global economy, addressing climate change will demand attention to costs and the promise of improving rather than undermining long-term economic prospects. A climate agreement will have to operate effectively during anemic as well as booming economic periods, facing squarely the challenges of poverty and unemployment while continually reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

9. Political Stability. A world beset by conflict and terrorism is far less likely to prevent dangerous climate disruption than one at peace. Security and climate must be addressed simultaneously. On the positive side, negotiating an effective and fair climate agreement offers countries a needed opportunity to practice peace and re-frame international relations along cooperative rather than competitive lines.

10. Mobilizing for Change. The way to deal with climate change we ourselves are causing is to see the opportunity for a new global economy and new ways of living in the effort to bring net greenhouse gas emissions to an end. There's no guarantee such a transition will be easy - or even possible. But a global movement to make the effort is needed now, and could yield new jobs, new opportunities for peace, and global cooperation beyond what humanity has ever achieved.

Worldwatch states in its report, "Simultaneously addressing these interlinked and challenging issues could lay the groundwork for a world that will not merely bounce back from both the economic and climate crises, but surge forward."

Find "State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World," at: http://www.worldwatch.org
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved

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