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The Climate Clock Is Ticking: In 42 Days, You Can Elect a U.S. President Who Makes Difference

Posted: 09/24/2012 1:31 pm

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President Obama told the Democratic Convention on September 6th 2012: '...climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They're a threat to our children's future. And in this election, you can do something about it.'

With 42 days to go until the US presidential elections, now is the time to put climate change at the top of the political agenda. We are at a critical moment in history. This year we have witnessed record levels of carbon in the atmosphere, unprecedented melting of ice in the arctic, alarming spikes in global temperature and extreme weather conditions.

Climate change is affecting everyone, everywhere, in every nation and from every socio-economic group. It affects cities, rural areas, economies, food security and health, touches every aspect of our lives throughout the developing and the developed world. The crisis we face is global. We will only solve it through global, collective action. For all our sakes we need a US President who is willing to assume a leadership role and make the tough decisions necessary to curb emissions and avert climate change.

In November 2008 newly President elect Barack Obama was unequivocal about his goals: "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change,' he said, 'that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process." He pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, and invest $150 billion in renewable and energy efficiency technologies.

The President's message was clear. And some progress has been made. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Obama's $787 billion stimulus, paved the way for a major shift in US green energy policy. TIME called it 'the most ambitious energy legislation in history.' But not enough has been done to address the threat of climate change.

As far back as 1977 President Jimmy Carter said, 'Americans long thought that nature could take care of itself--or that if it did not, the consequences were someone else's problem. As we know now, that assumption was wrong... Intelligent stewardship of the environment on behalf of all Americans is a prime responsibility of government.' The next US President cannot ignore the impending climate crisis without risking our lives and the lives of future generations. To abdicate this responsibility and disregard the overwhelming evidence of climate change, is to put the planet in peril.

I am not being alarmist. The situation is alarming.

CLIMATE CHANGE

If you had told me twenty years ago that by 2012 global carbon emissions would have increased by around 50%, that 1 billion people in the world would be hungry, that fossil fuel subsidies would amount to $1 trillion a year, I would have been horrified.

The science cannot be ignored. Climate change is accelerating. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has risen by 31% since 1750 and is now at the highest concentration seen in the last 420,000 years. August 2012 was the fourth warmest such month on record worldwide. July 2012 was the hottest month on record for the continental US.

In June 2012 monitoring stations in the Arctic showed the highest ever recorded concentrations of carbon dioxide, of over 400 ppm (parts per million). The rest of the world will soon follow suit.

Between the 8th and the 12th of July 2012 the melted ice area in Greenland increased from the usual 40% to 97%: a 57% increase over the course of just four days.

On 4 September, sea ice extent fell below four million sq km, a record low in the 33-year satellite record.

In his open letter published on September 17th 2012 in the Guardian newspaper, Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University calls the imminent collapse of ice in the Arctic a 'global disaster.' He predicts an ice free Arctic summer by 2015-16, with 'terrible' implications. 'As the water warms the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas so this will give a big boost to global warming.'

Dr Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) spoke to the BBC from aboard a Greenpeace ship in Svalbard, Norway on September 19th, 2012. The Arctic, Dr Stroeve said, 'may have entered a new climate era.... The loss of summer sea ice has led to unusual warming of the Arctic atmosphere, that in turn impacts weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, that can result in persistent extreme weather such as droughts, heat waves and flooding."

There is no longer any room for doubt. We are moving ever closer to the 'tipping point,' or point of no return.

Professor James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has long been unequivocal that we must reduce carbon emissions to 350 ppm, or suffer the consequences of an increase in global temperatures which will jeopardise the future of life on earth. In 2011 Hansen stated, "Limiting human-caused warming to 2 degrees is not sufficient. It would be a prescription for disaster." In his latest June 2012 report Professor Hansen writes:

The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that a perceptive person old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980 should recognize the existence of climate change...''

Not all is lost. There are things we can do to lower carbon emissions and avert climate change. We can embark upon a renewable energy revolution. We can transform our cities and make them energy efficient. We can embark on a global program of restoration and reforestation. But the climate clock is ticking. We must start now.

Climate change will impose a huge human and economic cost on both the developed and developing world. We urgently need adaptation and mitigation strategies, or we will all pay the price.

Two significant climate events are underway in New York City, aimed at improving global resilience to the effects of climate change.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) was established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton. Each year CGI convenes a community of global leaders to devise solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. CGI Annual Meetings have brought together more than 150 heads of state, 20 Nobel Prize laureates, and hundreds of leading CEOs, heads of foundations and NGOs, major philanthropists, and the media. This year's meeting, 'Designing for Impact,' aims to promote opportunity and equality, to design lives, environments and global systems to address climate change, to develop financial and risk management tools that can spur economic development.

Climate Week begins today in New York City. Organised by the Climate Group the summit will launch their report, 'the American Clean Revolution.' Their goal is to reduce emissions, promote renewable energy, and find solutions to the threat of climate change through clean and accessible energy, sustainable mobility, smart buildings, and a thriving economy. It is a vision of a smarter, better, more prosperous world for all, and a vision I share. The Climate Group is raising awareness of the '$3 trillion message:' by 2030, clean tech innovation could add $155 billion a year to the economy- if investments are made today. With the right government policies, this figure could grow to $244 billion a year, delivering a boost to the economy of over $3 trillion between 2030 and 2050 from new clean technology alone.

THE RENEWABLE ENERGY REVOLUTION

The latest 2012 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states: 'severe impacts [of climate change] may still be avoided if efforts are made to transform current energy systems.'

The conversion to renewable energy will lower carbon emissions, mitigate climate change, alleviate the imminent energy crisis and contribute to social and economic development. It will have measurable and immediate effects on energy and food security. Food prices and the cost of production have soared over the past few years. The food crisis of 2008 is recurring, and will continue to recur until food production is no longer directly dependent on biofuels.

Promoting renewable energy must now become a global and universal priority. In my role as Founder and Chair of The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, I am calling for a renewable energy revolution.

The global trends of investment and growth in renewable energy are promising. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over the past five years, solar or photovoltaic has 'averaged an annual growth rate of over 50%.' Renewables comprised more than 25% of total global power-generating capacity, supplied an estimated 20.3% of global electricity, and 16.7 % of global energy consumption. The share of renewables in global primary consumption during 2011 was around 13%. Total investment in renewable power and fuels last year increased by 17% to a record $257 billion, a six-fold increase on the 2004 figure and 94% higher than the total in 2007, the year before the world financial crisis.

Until last year, China was the highest investor in renewable energy in the world. The country plans to supply 15% of its energy from alternative and renewable sources by 2020. As the highest emitter in the world, China is also making slow but steady progress towards its goal.

In 2011 the US surpassed China to become the largest investor in renewable energy technologies, with $51 billion being invested; a 57% increase from 2010. Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup all have announced plans to increase their investments in 'clean' energy, promising a combined total of at least $170 billion. However, this growth was driven in part by three government support programs which have expired or will expire in 2012. The next administration will have to ensure the continuance, and expansion of such programs.

According to a report by Google.org US innovation in the renewable energy sector could stimulate the economy by $155-244 billion per year. It could create 1.1-1.9 million net new jobs and save consumers more than $900 per household each year. In total $2.3-3.2 trillion of GDP is at stake post-2020 if the required investment in clean energy innovation is delayed by even five years.

The Climate Group's report, 'American Clean Revolution,' which will be released today at the opening of Climate Week, NYC, makes several key policy recommendations for incentivising renewable energy in the US.

1. Place clean growth at the heart of energy policy

Regardless of which party wins the 2012 election, policymakers must finally place clean growth at the heart of America's energy and economic strategy.

2. Maintain the US lead in the clean energy investment

Level the playing field for clean energy by removing market distortions.

One way of doing this is by ensuring that clean energy companies have access to the same kind of government incentives used by the fossil fuel industry. The other key lever is to ensure that the full costs and benefits of each energy technology - so-called 'externalities' - including climate and public health impacts are properly reflected in the cost of energy production and consumption.

Place a price on carbon while lowering personal and/or corporate rates as part of a wider overhaul of the tax system, or develop other incentives and standards that encourage lower carbon economic activity.

3. Retain and strengthen the US lead on low carbon innovation

Triple annual federal energy research and development funding to $16 billon.

4. Foster leadership in the private sector

Government cannot act alone. Leadership in the private sector is a critical catalyst for an American Clean Revolution.

Encourage corporate (and government) leadership for successful low carbon businesses in the US and overseas, by: fostering innovation; early adoption of low carbon technologies; reducing carbon emissions; focusing on clean strategies that are aligned with other key business drivers; and opening up to collaboration and communication around key challenges.

The next US President should take note of these recommendations. No government, including the US, can afford to fall behind if they wish compete in a world economy that is moving inexorably towards the renewable energy revolution. Governor Romney's plans to continue subsidies for the oil and gas industries would be a huge step backwards, while the American Wind Energy Association suggests that 37,000 US jobs could be lost if the tax credit is not renewed.

Renewable energy technologies are developing at a great pace. The Gemasolar plant in Andalucia, Spain, is the first solar power station to produce electricity day and night, a ground-breaking development.

Germany has made significant achievements in the field of renewable energy. Germany's 'Energiewende,' or conversion to renewable energy is visionary. In 2011 the renewable energy industry employed 340,000 people and replaced €5 billion worth of energy imports. Solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy are expected to increase by 35% by 2020. Feed-in tariff legislation, introduced in 2000 by the renewable energy pioneer, the late Hermann Scheer, provides financial incentive for generating and exporting electricity from renewable sources. The scheme has enabled millions of people to benefit from renewable technologies. In 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Germany would phase out nuclear power by 2022, with eight reactors shut down so far.

On May 25th and 26th 2012 solar power plants in Germany produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour - equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity. This record breaking solar output refutes the arguments of sceptics who claim that solar and wind power cannot generate enough capacity to power major industrial nations.

The advances being made in Spain and Germany are encouraging. The UK is seeing growth in domestic and community power through the Feed-in Tariff, as is Ontario, Canada. But we cannot stop there. Development and growth in renewable energy is currently highly concentrated in just a few countries. In some ways renewable energy is still being treated as a new market, a plaything of Wall Street - instead of the real revolution that is needed. Renewable energy will need continued support and investment from governments and businesses in order to achieve its potential and mitigate climate change. We must broaden our thinking to provide financial incentives that empower households and businesses to invest in renewable energy. All governments should give this precedence.

Here are some practical examples of how leaders could move forward on the Climate Group's recommendations.

CITIES

The twentieth century marked a departure in architectural history. When supplies of oil, gas and construction material were easy to obtain, buildings soon lost their climatic and regional variations. With the inevitable premium that is now placed on mobility, huge, polluting traffic corridors define the limits of our cities, and the boroughs within them. Phenomenal levels of energy are wasted in these sprawling conurbations. Images of the earth from space at night reveal the light pollution and energy being expended on powering urban areas, especially in the USA.

However, the technologies do exist to transform these cities: to make them safer, more efficient, and cheaper to power.

The New Economics Foundation proposal a 'Green New Deal' advocates investment in a massive building programme of green, low carbon energy and transport infrastructure, while making existing buildings energy efficient. These measures will dramatically lower emissions while generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The Deal includes key reforms of the banking system to direct investment and capital towards public priorities and sustainability.

According to a new report by Electric Power Research Institute, The implementation of nationwide smart grids could provide $2 trillion in energy savings in the USA over a two decade period and provide the means to fully integrate renewable energy sources and new clean technologies such as electric vehicles.

An LED lighting trial conducted by The Climate Group in 2012 in twelve major cities across the world showed an 85% energy saving, while residents reported improved visibility. The upgrade of the famous 82 year-old Empire State building will result in a 38% energy saving, illustrating the huge potential for improvement in existing buildings. When the final work is completed in 2013 the Empire State building will be one of the most energy efficient commercial buildings in the USA.

We have the opportunity, with the advent of a renewable energy revolution to transform our cities and the way we build, and to make older structures energy efficient.

PLANT A PLEDGE

I was recently appointed Ambassador to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Plant a Pledge Campaign. The aim of Plant a Pledge is to support the Bonn Challenge target, to restore 370 million acres of degraded and deforested land by 2020. This is the largest restoration initiative the world has ever seen.

The Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) has mapped five billion acres of deforested and degraded land across the globe - an area the size of South America - with potential for restoration.

Restoring 370 million acres of forest landscapes could sequester approximately 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide per year. In short, achieving the Bonn Challenge would make the same contribution, in a single year, as the total of the efforts so far under the Kyoto Protocol.

Restoration of degraded and deforested lands is not simply about planting trees. Restoration will repair the damage not only to ecosystems, but, crucially, to human lives. We will put people and communities first, transforming barren or degraded areas of land into healthy, fertile working landscapes. Restored land can be put to a mosaic of uses such as agriculture, protected wildlife reserves, ecological corridors, regenerated forests, managed plantations, agroforestry systems and river or lakeside plantings to protect waterways.

At the recent Rio +20 summit I held a press conference with the GPFLR, the IUCN where we announced landmark restoration commitments totalling 44.5 million acres. The United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service showed exceptional leadership by pledging 38 million acres. This pledge is backed by the landmark United States Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which in its first year has supported communities, local landowners and enterprises in creating 1,500 local jobs, $59 million of labour income, and a sustainable supply of wood products, while reducing wildfire risk and delivering a range of environmental benefits. Other pledges were made by the government of Rwanda - 5 million acres, and the Mata Atlantica Forest Restoration Pact of Brazil, a coalition of government agencies, NGOs and private sector partners, pledged 2.5 million acres.

We also welcomed the commitment to the Bonn Challenge of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, a forum of indigenous peoples and forest communities who together have legal rights over more than 40 million acres of territorial forest in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

This is a good start. But we urgently need to put public pressure on governments and others who own or manage land to contribute to the Bonn Challenge target.

The Plant a Pledge campaign, devised by the IUCN aims to do just that. Each pledge at www.plantapledge.com supports a global petition directed at world leaders, which I will personally deliver, in my capacity as IUCN Plant a Pledge Campaign Ambassador at a major international event in the coming year.

Restoration can help lift millions of people out of poverty and inject more than US$80 billion per annum into local and global economies while reducing the gap between the carbon emissions reductions governments have promised and what is needed to avoid dangerous climate change by 11 to 17 per cent. And we will see the benefits not only in our lifetime, but in years to come.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change recognises that "curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions." Deforestation constitutes nearly 20% of the overall emissions, and is accelerating climate change. The world's forests store 289 gigatonnes of carbon in their biomass alone, and can be used as a tool to mitigate climate change.

We could make the world a more sustainable place - for everyone.

We cannot afford to remain locked into our current inefficient fossil fuel driven economy. We cannot continue to lose approximately 32 million acres of forest each year, equivalent to the land area of England. We cannot continue to allow degraded and deforested land to stand fallow.

The outcome of the next US election could decide the fate of the planet. All eyes will be on climate and energy policy in the USA. We all hope the next President will not let us down: that he will take concrete steps to curb emissions; give his full support to renewable energy; invest in sustainable transport, smart buildings and LED lighting to transform our cities; take note of the policy recommendations made by the Clinton Global Initiative, the Climate Group, the New Economics Foundation and others, and commit to restoration and reforestation under the Bonn Challenge. Our future, and that of our children and grandchildren, depends on it.

As Americans head to the polls this November we should be mindful of the words of US President Theodore Roosevelt:

"We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted...."

 

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