Global warming is a mess. It’s high time we innovate our way out of it.

The latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report shows that global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, notwithstanding efforts around the world to reduce our collective carbon footprint. And it’s not just that we’re making little or no progress on reducing dangerous greenhouse gases – it’s that we’re rapidly approaching a point at which it will be too late to ever reverse the damage to the environment. According to IEA chief economist Fatih Birol, 2020 is looming large as the date when the apocalyptic results of a nine-degree temperature rise from pre-industrial times starts to kick in.

In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, smoke rises in this time exposure image from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, Filr)
A Jan. 19, 2012 time exposure file photo of stacks at the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, Filr)

So, how is it, seven years after Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” woke people up to the dangers of global warming, we’re seemingly back to square one?

One problem, quite simply, is that many of the renewable technologies that we hoped would eventually save us are turning out to be, at best, long-term solutions—longer terms than we can currently afford. According to the IEA, even the most promising renewable energy technologies – solar, nuclear, wind – have done little or nothing to dent our carbon use on a global scale. In Japan, for example, long-term efforts to shift into nuclear power from carbon power were undone in the wake of the Fukushima accident. In fact, most of the gains in reducing carbon emissions, according to the IEA, have simply come from shifting away from dirty coal into energy sources such as shale gas. We’re essentially replacing one form of carbon power with a slightly cleaner (or not, depending on how you look at it) form of carbon power.

So, now what’s the plan?

One of the more radical ideas out there involves a plan to capture all the carbon dioxide that we’re spewing into the atmosphere and either store it underground or transform it into another substance such as sulfuric acid before it becomes a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technologies are still incredibly expensive. But they represent one way we may (emphasis on the “may”) be able to reduce our global carbon footprint without completely dismantling our existing energy infrastructure. In some cases, the captured carbon dioxide could be sold to oil producers immediately, who can use it for other oil extraction processes, rather than storing it underground.

While the concept for carbon dioxide capture and storage has picked up some strong supporters at the U.S. Department of Energy, which sees it as a potential way to transform the Department into a “center of innovation”, one of the early full-scale carbon capture and storage projects is actually going into action in Saskatchewan, Canada. If successful, it could create momentum for other carbon capture projects around the world.

Another idea to win the war on carbon is to place a tax on carbon.

Around the world, more than 40 different national governments and 20 sub-national governments (including the state of California) are experimenting with carbon pricing plans, with varying degrees of success. Within the U.S., however, any attempt to tax carbon has been a political nightmare. Other versions of carbon pricing, such as cap-and-trade plans, have been met with stiff resistance.

In a best case scenario, of course, scientists will discover a clean, cheap source of energy that can be massively implemented across the world. In an interview with The Fold, scientist George Crabtree of the Argonne National Laboratory suggested three possible technologies to win the war against global warming: a new type of battery that can be powered by renewable energy sources, a safer way to frack and supersized carbon capture plans that transform carbon dioxide into something harmless like carbonate rock.

But time is running out.

What’s needed more than anything else is a global war on carbon that reduces the world’s dangerous stockpiles of “carbon bombs”, or energy sources that could disastrously raise the global temperature. The United States may have brought down its carbon emissions by 3.8 percent over the past year, and Europe may be making progress as well, but it has been more than offset by what’s happening elsewhere in the world. In China, emissions actually increased, by 3.8 percent. In the Middle East, emissions also increased. You can see where we’re going with this: the U.S. and China are basically canceling each other out.

Sure, it’s great that both countries are finally working to reduce their use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), but these steps seem incremental at best. As the IEA suggests in its report, a failure to act globally now means we’re locking in our current energy infrastructure. A nine-degree rise in the world’s temperatures would make the world a hot mess sooner than we’d ever like to imagine.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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