WASHINGTON — Emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are growing at such a rate that the world will probably exceed a safe limit in average global temperatures by the end of the century and veer into a higher temperature zone that would profoundly damage economic growth and most other aspects of life, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
Emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, need to stay below certain levels so that they do not push average global temperatures higher than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists and policymakers have warned. (The Celsius to Fahrenheit ratio is 1 degree Celsius to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.) Average temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius over the last 150 years or so, as mass industrialization spurred the increased combustion of fossil fuels.
The IEA report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, says carbon dioxide emissions grew at a rate of 1.4% in 2012, releasing a record 31.6 gigatons into the atmosphere. On this current path, the world’s average temperatures are on track to increase between 3.6 degrees Celsius to 5.3 degrees Celsius, or 6.48 degrees Fahrenheit to 9.54 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century, said the IEA, an independent research group established by the world’s most industrialized nations.
“Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “But the problem is not going away — quite the opposite.”
Soaring temperatures would have profound implications for everything, including water supplies, electricity production, agriculture and public health. At the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, dozens of participating countries, including the United States, agreed to take steps to prevent the average rise in global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. But the agreement was not legally binding, and worldwide emissions have increased.
Emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen in the United States recently to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, largely because of a natural gas boom that has prompted a shift in power generation away from coal. The IEA report notes that “China experienced the largest growth in CO2 emissions (300 Mt), but the increase was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade,” driven in part by the greater reliance on renewable energy.
The IEA’s predictions arrived on the heels of a new measure to address climate change announced over the weekend at a California meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The United States and China agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a highly potent heat-trapping chemical used as refrigerant in appliances. If the use of HFCs were left unchecked, they could account for 20% of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the White House said. The reduction in HFCs would be the equivalent of slashing two years worth of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to David Doniger, policy director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The agreement between President Obama and President Xi to work together to address HFCs is a significant breakthrough,” said Andrew Steer, chief executive of the World Resources Institute, a Washington environmental group.
Still, reducing HFCs addresses only a small element of climate change. To get back on track for keeping average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, governments would have to take aggressive steps in other areas besides HFC reductions. About two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions come from the world’s power plants, the IEA report says. The group recommended curtailing the use and construction of inefficient coal-fired plants and boosting the use of renewable energy and natural gas.
At the same time, the report also recommended phasing out subsidies to fossil fuel industries. The IEA called for eliminating leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane at oil and natural gas wells. The group also recommended improving energy efficiency in industry, transportation and construction.
All those ideas have been circulating around Washington, but Congress and the White House have shown little sense of urgency so far. Congress has shown no interest in ending fossil fuel subsidies. A modest bipartisan energy efficiency bill in the Senate has gotten ensnared in a thicket of unrelated amendments.
Meanwhile, much-awaited rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants have stalled in the White House. Rules that would cut emissions from existing plants have yet to be proposed.