When President Obama speaks on Tuesday at the U.N. Climate Summit, he will be able to make a decent case for what the United States has done to help.
His administration has tightened fuel efficiency regulations, followed through on mercury rules for existing coal plants, pressed India and China on controlling potent hydrofluorocarbons, and used tax breaks and Energy Department funds under the stimulus act to promote wind and solar energy.
He will also boast about a smattering of other new initiatives – including an order that federal agencies factor resilience to climate change into international aid and investments. He may discuss his $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition. And he can also highlight the formation of a public-private partnership to figure out how to voluntarily lower the release of methane by natural gas producers.
Yet it isn’t enough. Not nearly.
Worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, driven by a hunger for energy as economies grow. Even many industrialized countries are going to blow through the 2020 emissions targets they agreed to meet at earlier climate summits.
The United States can claim some success. Jason Furman, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, noted in a Sept. 22 speech at the University of Pennsylvania, that gasoline consumption has dropped about 5 percent since 2005. U.S. carbon emissions have fallen 10 percent from 2007 through 2013 – half due to the recession and half due to changes in the way we use energy. It might very well hit the target set in Cancun negotiations to cut emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
And the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, both new and existing, would slash carbon dioxide emissions even further.
Even so, these measures are still not adequate in the view of most climate scientists and energy experts. And U.S. emissions actually rose a bit in 2013.
The International Energy Agency says on its Web site that “the implications” of energy consumption “are daunting. Meeting the emission goals pledged by countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would still leave the world 13.7 billion tonnes of CO2 – or 60 percent – above the level needed to remain on track for just 2ºC warming by 2035.”
Moreover, all over the planet countries are missing targets entirely.
Germany, despite a huge wind and solar initiative, has increased the use of coal, which accounted for 45 percent of its electric power last year, according to Bloomberg News. Though it cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 through 2012, Germany is still committed to closing down its remaining nuclear power plants and power plant emissions have started to rise.
Japan, where a tsunami led to the closure of all the country’s nuclear plants, is running far ahead of its emissions targets. The country is importing large amounts of coal, oil and liquefied natural gas. Last November, Japan acknowledged the inevitable. It set new less ambitious targets, saying that it would release 3.1 percent more greenhouse gases in 2020 than it did in 1990, rather than the 6 percent reduction it originally promised or the 25 percent cut it promised in 2009, just two years before the 2011 nuclear disaster.
Canada, busy burning up fuel to mine the oil sands in Alberta, will also miss its targets. Oil sands operations accounted for 7 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 – and they’re the fastest growing segment. The Canadian environment ministry, called Environment Canada, estimates that instead of hitting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, Canada will eek out a 0.4 percent reduction. That’s impressive given the country’s rapid economic growth, but nowhere near what’s needed.
Even in the United States, despite all the switching of gas for coal and fuel efficiency measures, greenhouse gas emissions increased slightly from 2012 to 2013.
And those are the advanced nations. Developing countries such as China and India and Brazil are growing quickly and pose bigger threats to the climate. China is talking about establishing a cap on carbon emissions, but meanwhile it has surpassed the United States in emissions and its CO2 emissions climbed 4.2 percent last year. This week new research estimates that China has surpassed the European Union in per capita emissions too.
If the widespread consensus of climate experts is anywhere near accurate, the world will need to slash carbon emissions. Instead, CO2 emissions rose 2.5 percent and hit a record in 2013.
“We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below 2°C of climate change, a level that will be already challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations,” said Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre at University of East Anglia on the center’s Web site. “Politicians meeting in New York need to think very carefully about their diminishing choices exposed by climate science.”