IPCC summary calls for action sooner rather than later to address warming

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The world needs to ramp up the ambition of its greenhouse gas reduction goals — and do so quickly — if it is to avoid the worst effects of global warming, a U.N. panel of experts warned yesterday.
A draft summary of the mitigation section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, released yesterday in Berlin, showed that the world’s current greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges are likely to hold warming to 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — if countries stick to them. But scientists have warned that if human emissions push warming above 2 degrees Celsius compared with that base line, that will open the door to dangerous and costly shifts in the world’s climate.To avoid this, the IPCC draft said, countries must follow their pre-2020 pledges made in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010 with ambitious post-2020 pledges capable of holding atmospheric CO2 levels at or below 50 gigatons by 2030. Worldwide emissions must decline between 40 and 70 percent below 2010 levels by midcentury.If carbon emissions creep up above that point, much more drastic and expensive emissions reductions will be needed post-2030 and the world will have to rely more heavily on hypothetical future technologies that would remove heat-trapping emissions from the atmosphere. The likelihood of missing the 2-degree goal will also increase, the report said, ushering in a world of more severe heat waves, floods, and other events linked to global warming.

This third and final installment of the IPCC report comes as the Obama administration continues to state that it expects the United States to meet its 2020 pledge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels. It also comes as the White House weighs a post-2020 pledge for release ahead of next year’s U.N. climate summit in Paris — a process that has already prompted push-back from Republican lawmakers (E&E Daily, Feb. 28).

The White House said again that its near-term target is within reach two weeks ago, when it unveiled its strategy to reduce emissions of methane, the second-largest contributor to man-made global warming (Greenwire, March 28). The methane blueprint calls for reductions from a variety of sources, but could pave the way for new regulations for the oil and gas sector. U.S. EPA is expected to release five white papers very soon that could show options for curbing petroleum leakage.

EPA is also moving ahead with first-of-a-kind CO2 rules for new and existing power plants, with a draft guidance for the latter rule now undergoing interagency vetting at the White House. Stakeholders are waiting to see whether the agency will propose only emissions-reduction measures to be taken on-site at individual plants, or whether it might take a more systemwide approach drawing on efficiencies and fuel-shifting opportunities “outside the fence line.”

The IPCC report warns that narrower emissions-reduction strategies are generally less cost-effective than broader ones if the goals remain the same.

“Well-designed systemic and cross-sectoral mitigation strategies are more cost-effective in cutting emissions than a focus on individual technologies and sectors,” the summary reads. “At the energy system level these include reductions in the [greenhouse gas] emission intensity of the energy supply sector, a switch to low carbon energy carriers (including low-carbon electricity) and reductions in energy demand in the end-use sectors without compromising development.”

Environmental Defense Fund visiting chief economist Thomas Sterner, who took a leadership role in writing part of the report, said in a statement that the report should prompt governments to move to price carbon.

“There are real opportunities to limit emissions, but we need the application of strong policy instruments around the world,” Sterner said. “For instance, in most countries right now there is virtually no cost to emitting greenhouse gases, but an increasing number of areas are starting to adopt permit trading.”

He pointed to California’s emissions trading program as one example. “Other important policy instruments that we identified include stimulating research on new technologies, and removing the subsidies on fossil fuels that are now in place in many countries,” he said.

EPA could craft an existing power plant rule that allows states to choose to limit emissions through some form of a permit trading program. But a federal cap-and-trade program would need approval from Congress, as would funding for alternative energy or rollbacks to fossil fuel tax breaks. All appear to face an uphill battle.

But Capitol Hill Democrats said over the weekend that the newest report should help generate political momentum for those policies.

“The longer we wait to act, the harder and more expensive it will be,” said Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in a statement.