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Global climate deal push as CO2 levels soar

Greenhouse gas levels have reached record highs, making climate change negotiations more urgent

Greenhouse gas (GHG) levels reached a record high last year as major emitters burnt more coal and the earth's ability to deal with climate changing gases appeared to wane, increasing the urgency for a global deal after years of deadlocked talks between the world's largest emitters.   

Although the world's largest emitters say they are taking determined steps to slow growth in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, such as shutting coal plants and encouraging wind and solar energy, the latest figures on GHG levels have amplified calls to slash emissions through an ambitious global deal.

A report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) on 9 September was another reminder of the legacy that the burning of fossil fuels has bequeathed to the earth's climate, and the fast-closing window of opportunity to avert the worst of climate change. 

The WMO found that radiative forcing - the warming effect on the earth's climate - had risen 34% between 1990 and 2013 because of an accumulation of climate-changing gases.

CO2 emitted by the burning of coal, gas and oil remains the main culprit for an increase in greenhouse gases levels, which increased at their fastest pace for almost 30 years to 396 parts per million (ppm).

But big growth in other GHGs, such as methane and nitrous oxide, has increased the potency of a cocktail that scientists fear will cook the world's climate in future decades.

This would entail an increase in floods, droughts, storms, crop failure, mass migrations and huge costs to the world economy. "CO2 remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer. Past, present and future CO2 emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable," said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. "We are running out of time," he added.

The WMO report comes as the UN cranks up pressure on the world's biggest emitters to agree a global climate deal in Paris at the end of next year. Many poor countries say an agreement is essential to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The latest figures from the WMO show a 2.9 ppm increase last year from 2012 levels - the largest annual rise since 1984 - while global concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are now 142% above pre-industrial levels. 

Scientists say that CO2 emissions from energy use will have to peak during the next decade if the world is to have a better than 50:50 chance of keeping a rise in emissions to 2°C, the threshold beyond which runaway climate change could become irreversible. 

The WMO figures report concentrations of GHGs within the atmosphere and not emissions, which complicates the precise actions major users of fossil fuels can take to ensure the worst of climate change is avoided. The figures in the 9 September report refer to the quantity of climate-changing gases that  remain in the atmosphere following a complex interaction between the atmosphere, biosphere and the oceans, rather than emissions of GHGs pumped out by individual countries.

At the present growth rate, the average, annual CO2 concentration is expected to reach 400 ppm in 2015 or 2016. This is a level scientists believe may not have been reached since around 3m years ago when the planet was 2-3°C warmer. If the world is to keep temperature rises within the 2°C threshold, then the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would have to be limited to 480 ppm, the International Panel on Climate Change said earlier this year in a landmark report.

Preliminary data from September's WMO report indicate the 2013 rise in CO2 levels was due to the oceans absorbing less of the greenhouse gas, as well as rises in emissions from coal use. If the earth's oceans and forests continue to struggle to soak up carbon, more of it will end up in the atmosphere and accelerate the rise in global temperatures, scientists say. 

Even if the earth were sponging up more CO2, the process could have the catastrophic side effect of acidifying oceans and damaging marine life such as corals, algae, molluscs and plankton. Without these organisms, already depleted stocks of fish could be wiped out completely, depriving hundreds of millions of people of a staple source of food.

A failure to dump fossil fuel generation in favour of low carbon energy will have other disastrous consequences for human health and economic well-being, economists and climate scientists say. Worsening air pollution, particularly in developing countries, is now the biggest environmental cause of premature death, after overtaking poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that 7m people, one-eighth of the world's deaths in 2012, died as the result of exposure to air pollution, meaning poor air quality now kills twice as many people globally as HIV and AIDS. Population growth is also likely to make even more difficult to defuse the climate change timebomb. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects the number of people on the planet to rise to 9 billion by 2050, up from 7bn in 2012, while during the same time frame global energy use will soar by 80%. This means the world will remain hooked on fossil fuels unless renewables and other low carbon energy sources are rolled out on a huge scale, and can compete in terms of costs with coal, which is often cheaper.

Without a decisive shift away from coal, oil and gas, fossil fuels will have an 85% share of the energy mix by mid-century, broadly unchanged from where it is now. This will drive GHG emissions 50% higher between now and 2050 during a period when the opposite - a sharp fall - is required to give the world a realistic chance of avoiding the worst climate-related disasters. 

The potential economic costs of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels should also give the world's major institutions and national governments pause for thought. The OECD said in a report in August that taking strong action to curb fossil fuel use and limit the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere to 450 ppm would slow economic growth by 0.2% on average, costing 5.5% of global GDP by 2050. However the cost of doing nothing would be much more, and could be as high as 14% of average world consumption per capita.

The immediate effects of coal on health, and perhaps the potential economic costs of runaway climate change, appear to be spurring some large emitters to curb the use of coal, however. But even if countries manage to prevent the building of new coal fired electricity generation near megacities such as Beijing and Mumbai, or shut down older plants in areas such as the northeastern US, the danger is that the next wave of developing economies will use the fuel as the cheapest means to power economic growth. Meanwhile the hundreds of new coal-fired power plants built in the past 10 years, mostly in China and India, but also in rich countries such as Germany, are likely to be locked into the energy mix for decades to come.

Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlight the scale of the problem.Last year coal was the fastest-growing fossil fuel in terms of consumption, with China and India combined accounting for 88% of global growth. Last year coal accounted for almost a third of the global energy mix, up from 25% in 1973. And despite efforts by China to curb growth in coal-fired power, the country's priority for economic growth meant it accounted for half of global coal consumption last year, which rose 3% from 2012. It is this reliance by developing countries on the fuel blamed most for climate change - a resource which powered the industrial revolution in fully advanced countries - that is the major source of discord at UN climate talks.

Dividing up the rest of the amount of fossil fuels the world can burn, and at the same time stabilise CO2 concentrations at 480 ppm, is a huge obstacle that will have to be overcome if a meaningful deal is struck in Paris at the end of 2015.  

Climate talks

With the warnings from scientists about the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere growing ever more shrill, the UN is stepping up its efforts to broker an ambitious global deal that will slow, and then reverse growth in emissions.

Most, if not all, of the 190 countries included in the UN climate process will have to sign off on a final agreement, meaning the US, the EU and other rich countries will need to increase the amount of funding to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. 

Progress to find a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has been glacial. Since the failed 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, major emitters have failed to agree on who should shoulder the burden of emissions cuts and the extent to which the treaty should be binding on its signatories.

Rich countries say fast-developing economies such as China and India have the resources and the capability to roll out renewable energy on much larger scale and start phasing out coal. Meanwhile developing countries say the US, EU and Japan industrialised by pumping out most of the CO2 now warming the atmosphere, and bear historical responsibility in helping the world shift towards low-carbon energy.  

Getting the world's largest carbon emitters -- the EU, China, the US and India - to sign a legally binding deal in Paris will be crucial for its success. Combined, these nations produce around half of total global greenhouse gas emissions. 

If a deal emerges from Paris at the end of next year, it is likely to use a bottom-up approach, where existing pledges and carbon reduction programmes, such as curbs on coal in the US and the White House's tougher emissions standards for cars, serve as the basis for negotiation. However the proposals put on the table so far are viewed by scientists and least developed countries as hugely inadequate to cut emissions in line with the need to restrict rises in emissions to 2°C. 

The Climate Action Tracker, which monitors pledges made at climate talks, says developed countries would need to reduce emissions 25-55% below 1990 levels by 2025 and by 35-55% below 1990 levels by 2030. Their pledges fall well short of that, and countries are coming under increasing pressure to deepen and clarify their targets, meaning that efforts at preventing runaway climate change now face a furtive 15 months before and during the December 2015 Paris meeting.

The Path to Paris - Timeline

23 September 2014 UN Climate Summit, New York. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon will host a gathering of heads of government, chief executives, city mayors, pressure groups and multilateral institutions to discuss ways of scaling up renewable energy and reducing the costs of deploying it in developing countries, and ways of pricing fossil fuels out of energy markets.

1-12 December 2014 UN Climate Change Conference (COP20), Lima: The meeting in Peru will aim to bridge the yawning gaps between various negotiating blocs of rich, middle-income and poor countries and ensure that Paris avoids the chaos of Copenhagen in 2009, when world leaders had little in the way of preliminary agreements to work on. 

March 2015 Deadline for major emitters: By early spring next year, the UN wants governments to reveal their planned greenhouse gas cuts, when they expect their national emissions to peak, and any adaptation plans as part of a global climate change deal. 

Who is doing what to combat climate change?

China

Driven partly by concerns about air pollution, the world's largest emitter has committed to cutting the share of energy it gets from coal, and has set up pilot carbon markets and low-carbon zones. It is ramping up its renewable capacity. 

The IEA expects renewables to account for almost 45% of China's newly added power generation by 2020, but soaring demand for energy means coal and gas will continue to provide the lion's share of the country's energy supply in 2040, meaning a much-needed peak in CO2 levels could still be decades away.  

US 

President Obama has proposed a Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from electricity generation by 30% by 2030, and wants to make big reductions from cars and trucks and the amount of methane generated by agriculture and industry. 

However, taken together, by 2030 these policies would mean emissions are still 5% above a 1990 baseline and just 10% below 2005 levels, far from where the world's second-biggest emitter needs to be to make a big difference in cutting emissions.   

India  

Recently elected prime minister Narendra Modi has committed to expanding the country's solar energy capacity, which will be partly funded by doubling a tax on coal. But the country's population growth and pledge to lift hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty will mean the country is unlikely to make bold pledges on emissions cuts.

EU

The 28-nation bloc is widely viewed as having the most active approach to climate policy, but has yet to agree a final emissions reduction pledge for 2030.  In October members of the European Union (EU) will meet and agree a new 2030 Energy Framework, aiming to set pan-European targets to reduce GHGs from 1990 levels, but coal-dependent countries such as Poland remain reluctant to sign up to a 40% cut proposed by the European Commission (EC) in January. The talks are likely to drag on well into 2015 before the EU adopts a final position and 2030 target. Moreover, critics say the EC's pledges aren't much stronger than business-as-usual.

Australia 

As one of the world's biggest producers of coal and a major energy user, Australia is widely viewed as having a major responsibility in taking action to reduce emissions. But in July the Australian government abolished a contentious carbon tax brought in by the previous administration, and has been trying to mollify a target that mandates 20% of energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. 

Methods

Taxes and carbon trading schemes are likely to be the most effective ways of cutting emissions, say institutions such as the OECD, but these methods will have to price carbon high enough to have an impact on the fuel mix. 

The EU is trying to boost flagging carbon prices through market intervention after 2020 and remove a glut of allowances that built up because of the financial crisis and generous allocation of free permits to heavy industry. A shift from gas to cheaper coal was viewed as the most obvious sign that the EU emissions trading scheme had failed, although policies at EU and national level have spurred investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.     

Replacing coal with wind, hydro and solar will be crucial if the world is to slash CO2 emissions. Last year, renewable power generating capacity grew at its fastest pace ever, reaching 22% of the global total and matching natural gas's share of the energy mix, according to the IEA. Renewables are expected to account for nearly 80% of total new power generation capacity built during the next six years. However, there have been limits to the success of renewable energy. While the new additions of capacity look impressive, typically only a fraction of this capability is produced as electricity and fed into the grid, as wind, solar, and even hydro levels can be frustratingly intermittent. 

In Europe, a lack of political certainty, and a mixed public response to renewable energy and its sprawling infrastructure of new turbines, panels and pylons, are all vexing investors. Veli-Matti Reinikkala, regional leader for Europe at ABB, a power services firm, told Petroleum Economist the biggest obstacle stopping energy and infrastructure companies from investing in renewable energy projects is doubts about how EU targets, which are non-binding on member states, will be implemented.

Katja Hall, the Confederation of British Industry's deputy director general, said achieving a global climate deal next year will be crucial to giving businesses the policy certainty they need to make renewable energy investments. "Tackling climate change and driving growth can go hand in hand, and getting a global deal next year will be crucial to giving businesses certainty, enabling them to compete on an equal footing and spurring innovation," she said. 

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