Global warming was back in the news this week after a draft of a long-anticipated report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked to the media. Although details from the report may change before the final version is released next month, one thing appears certain. The report will show that greenhouse-gas emissions aren’t going down, in spite of the billions of dollars that have been spent on developing and deploying new energy technologies such as wind and solar power. Indeed, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, global annual carbon dioxide emissions are higher now than they were when the previous version of the report came out in 2007.
“We’re headed rapidly in the wrong direction. Between now and when the last report came out, we’ve done essentially nothing to alter course,” says David Victor, co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California at San Diego.
The leaked document is the first part of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, which is put together by hundreds of scientists around the world based on accumulated research on climate change. The IPCC’s reports, which are released every five or six years, are often taken as important summaries of the current understanding on climate change. And by most accounts, next month’s review will have plenty of bad news.
“The evidence that humans are causing global warming was already pretty strong,” says Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, based in Oakland, California. “The much more important story is the evidence that we have no idea how to do anything about it.” He says it’s no longer plausible, “even with radical action,” that carbon dioxide levels will be kept below 450 parts per million, a commonly cited goal for limiting the damaging effects of climate change.
Carbon dioxide concentrations recently reached nearly 400 parts per million, up from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. Keeping concentrations below 450 will require not just decreasing emission levels but nearly eliminating them, and doing so by roughly midcentury.
The IPCC report will be yet another reminder of just how little has been done to address the problem. Emissions are rising even as solar panels and wind turbines are being installed at a rapid pace and cleaner natural gas is replacing some of the coal used for power in the United States. That’s because coal power is growing quickly worldwide (see “The Enduring Technology of Coal” and “Renewables Can’t Keep Up with the Growth in Coal Use Worldwide”). Also, advances in producing natural gas and oil from unconventional sources are making more of these fossil fuels accessible (see “Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map”).
“You have to replace the entire energy system of the entire world with low-carbon energy,” says Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In terms of government policy to help make that happen, he says, “we’re not even doing the bare minimum.” Romm says government regulations and subsidies that encourage the adoption of existing technologies are key, noting that as more solar panels have been installed, the costs have come down substantially.
Nordhaus and others emphasize the need for research and development to invent much better technology than we have now. He also says efforts should be focused on technologies that have significantly decreased carbon dioxide emissions in the past, such as nuclear power. The experience of France, which shifted almost completely to nuclear power over the course of three decades, demonstrates the results that are possible.
The U.S. spends about $5 billion per year now on energy R&D, including demonstrations of new technology. Several reports from academics, business groups, and nonprofits recommend increasing that to between $15 and $30 billion. Victor says the “single most important” thing that could be done is to impose a carbon tax to make fossil fuels more expensive.
The delay in reducing emissions is important because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time. “It’s not like you can turn off the emissions and a few years later you’re back to normal,” says Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT. “The decisions that we make in the next decade or so are decisions that will determine the fate of the planet for thousands of years.”