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The key climate and clean energy problem of 2015: Doing a lot isn’t the same as doing enough

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Anyone watching the climate debate in the last year has seen an encouraging bustle of activity. From the U.S.-China agreement on emissions to Pope Francis’s coming encyclical on the environment, it’s really starting to seem that we’re racing toward progress — to be capped in Paris in December, when nations of the world may finally reach a binding global accord on emissions.

Indeed, not a week goes by in the United States, it seems, without some new form of climate action — most recently, the Agriculture Department pledging moves that would take a significant chunk out of U.S. emissions. Meanwhile, we’re also expecting a record year for domestic renewable energy growth and coal plant retirements.

[The Obama administration is taking on agriculture’s role in climate change. Here’s why that’s a big deal]

It all feels like so much progress — until, that is, you consult the hard numbers.

For instance, Chelsea Harvey reported in The Washington Post this week on a sobering study out of the UK’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, finding that when you take into account the United States’, China’s and the EU’s currently pledged emissions reduction goals, and add in a reasonable estimate of the rest of the world’s emissions as well, you’re left without much chance of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels. There will simply be too many emissions.

But the 2 degree target is central to this entire process. “It seems likely that there will still be a significant gap between aggregate national intentions and a pathway that is consistent with avoiding global warming of more than 2°C,” notes the paper.

[Report: Global emissions goals still aren’t enough to prevent dangerous warming]

It is also important to underscore that many countries, and many scientists, do not believe that 2 C is even a tough enough target. The famed former NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently commented that “it’s crazy to think that 2 degrees Celsius is a safe limit,” remarking that such a goal could lock in major sea level rise.

The rumblings of the climate system lately have seemed to support what Hansen is saying. We’re seeing ominous melting of Antarctica, and now scientists have reason to fear that Earth itself will soon unveil a new source of added greenhouse gases — the soils of the Arctic region, which could add very substantially to global emissions totals by 2100, partially offsetting any policy progress.

When it comes to clean energy, meanwhile, the story is similar — a lot of encouraging steps, but not currently enough to rescue us, if you look at the hard numbers.

A report from the International Energy Agency this week, for instance, found that we need three times as much investment in clean energy innovation as we’re currently making, and we need the “decoupling” of carbon emissions from economic growth to proceed twice as fast as is currently occurring — all in order to hit the 2 C target.

That’s consistent with another recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme, which found accelerating global investments in clean energy — mainly wind and solar — but also noted that renewables still provide only 9.1 percent of the world’s total power. And that percentage is not growing fast enough.

“The chances of the world limiting the increase in average temperatures to less than two degrees Centigrade appear very slim,” it noted.

The point of this litany is not to make you depressed. Rather, it’s to make you aware.

If you’re an optimist, you may look at all this and think to yourself — yeah, but nobody can forecast all the technologically developments (and surprises) that we’ll see in the next 10 to 20 years. There will probably be a breakthrough — maybe in energy storage technology — that leads to a great leap forward for renewable energy. Meanwhile, countries will continually tighten their emissions targets to remain consistent with the developing science.

[Why Tesla’s announcement is such a big deal: The coming revolution in energy storage]

But you could also look at that climate system again and think to yourself — I don’t like what I’m seeing. Changes seem to be happening too fast. The Arctic is already transformed — and the Antarctic scares me. What if we’re not pessimistic enough?

It isn’t really possible, right now, to choose between these two options. But knowing they’re out there means anyone watching the climate debate should, at minimum, be vigilant, watching the latest science and the latest policy steps to determine whether we’re actually trending toward better or worse news.

That’s not fun, and it’s not a great way to live — under constant uncertainty and with constant outlook adjustments. But it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, given the two major variables at play here: 1) a global civilization that is awakening late to the unprecedented experiment going on with its only living space; 2) the unprecedented experiment itself.

In such a context, one possible outcome — not what’s hoped for, not what we’re striving for, but still possible — would be that even though the world finally gets it, it still can’t get it together.

That’s the outcome that, as Paris approaches this year, we need to be guarding the most strongly against.

Read more:

Pope Francis has given the climate movement just what it needed — faith

Why 2015 could be a record year for the greening of U.S. energy

The melting of Antarctica was already really bad. It just got worse.