06/12/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Climate Change: China, U.S. Bring Toy Fire Truck to Seven-Alarm Fire

flare on oil rig A special report by the International Energy Agency offers a sobering picture of where the world is in terms of addressing climate change. In sum, we're behind. To get us back on track relatively quickly, the IEA recommends four steps, including reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production. (Rob_Ellis/

Global greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever. What's to be done?

"Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map," a special report [pdf] by the International Energy Agency (IEA), was released on Monday, and the findings are sobering.

In 2012 energy-related, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reached their highest levels ever at 31.6 gigatons, a data point to go along with the fact that last month CO2 surpassed the 400 parts-per-million mark for the first time in perhaps several million years.

Virtually all of that increase can be attributed to emission increases in developing countries (i.e., countries not belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD), with China making the largest single contribution. All in all, non-OECD countries now account for 60 percent of all global emissions; in 2000 that percentage was 45.

(And before we OECD country-ites pat ourselves on the back for our climate-change enlightenment and point fingers at the "Third World"-ers, let's not forget that a lot of those increasing emissions in non-OECD countries are to produce cheap goods for us to import and consume.)

The report did point to some positive signs:
  • Emissions from the United States dropped by 3.8 percent in 2012 primarily due to fuel switching from coal to natural gas;
  • Emissions from the European Union dropped by 1.4 percent; and
  • China's "growth was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade, driven largely by the deployment of renewables and a significant improvement in the energy intensity of its economy."
Bleak Prediction for Keeping Climate Change in Check The IEA's assessment of where we are headed is pretty bleak. The authors write:
"The world is not on track to meet the target agreed by governments to limit the long-term rise in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (°C). ... Policies that have been implemented, or are now being pursued, suggest that the long-term average temperature increase is more likely to be between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C (compared with pre-industrial levels), with most of the increase occurring this century."

IEA's Recipe for Averting Dangerous Climate Change

But all is not lost, according to the report. The world can still meet the 2-degree Celsius target, the agency claims, and it's not all that difficult. Because "the energy sector accounts for around two-thirds of greenhouse-gas emissions," thanks to heavy energy consumption worldwide of fossil fuels, key to meeting the challenge is targeting energy, the report argues, and it prescribes four steps for "intensive action ... required by 2020," all involving existing and/or available policies and technologies:
  • Improving energy-efficiency in industry, transportation and buildings, specifically through energy-cutting measures in:
    • "new space and water heating, as well as cooling equipment͖,"
    • "lighting and new appliances͖,"
    • "new industrial motor systems͖" and
    • "standards for new vehicles in road transport";
  • Cutting emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas some 20 times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2, in oil and gas production;
  • "Limiting the use and construction of inefficient coal-fired power plants"; and
  • Phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels.
The IEA stresses throughout that these actions (which they call the "4-for-2 °C Scenario") should be taken swiftly and collectively to buy us time to 2020, when a new international climate treaty is expected to take effect (2015 is the target year for reaching a new post-Kyoto, global agreement). In other words these are "a bridge to further action" and a bridge that needs to be built and crossed ASAP.

U.S.-China Response

In case you missed it, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping had an historic, two-day summit last week at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California. That's right Rancho Mirage. You gotta hand it to the PR folks at the White House -- what better place to hold the first face-to-face meeting between the two world leaders than in a place called mirage?

Mirage or no mirage, the meetings, we are told, covered a wide range of topics including climate change. And lo and behold, the leaders of the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases came to an agreement to address the problem of climate change.

Was it a visionary and bold plan to address emissions from the energy sector? No. Was it a more modest but groundbreaking plan along the lines of that proposed by the IEA? Again, no.

What Obama and Xi agreed to do was work on eliminating emissions of hydriofluorocarbons (HFCs).

About HFCs

HFCs are manmade chemicals used in refrigerants. Back in the mid-70s scientists discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs also known by the trade name Freon) that were used in items like aerosol cans and refrigerants were depleting the ozone layer, an important part of the atmosphere that protects us from, among other things, skin cancer. To stop that depletion, CFCs were eventually phased out and replaced by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), but, as it turned out, those too depleted the ozone layer (though not quite as much), and so they were phased out and replaced by HFCs.

The good news with HFCs is that they do not affect the stratosphere. The bad news is they are a greenhouse gas and can be 14,800 times more potent than CO2 at warming the atmosphere.

So, don't get me wrong. Obviously there are global-warming benefits to eradicating HFCs. In fact, I've written in support of it. And the IEA report, while not including it in its four-point action plan, highlights HFCs along with other "short-lived climate pollutants" (SLCPs) -- black carbon, methane and tropospheric ozone -- as warmers responsible for a "substantial fraction of the radiative forcing to date" and thus good warmers to reduce but as a "complement" to actions that reduce CO2 emissions. To quote the report:

"[L]asting climate benefits from fast action on SLCPs are contingent on stringent parallel action on longer-lasting CO2 emissions. In other words, while fast action to mitigate SLCPs could help slow the rate of climate change and improve the chances of staying below the 2 °C target in the near term, longer term climate protection depends on deep and persistent cuts in CO2 emissions being rapidly realised."

So, given all the other positive areas for collaboration on addressing climate change that the two countries could pursue -- R&D on green technologies, advancing technologies like carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), building sustainable cities, greening transportation, and establishing and enforcing solid environmental laws [pdf], etc. -- limiting the global-warming-reducing measures to eliminating HFCs seems, at least from where I sit, a bit of a disappointment. More of a mirage than a real plan to tackle climate change.

Ironically, much of the world's climate-change woes could be alleviated if just the United States and China, by themselves, entered into a bilateral agreement to curtail CO2 emissions. You think, maybe Obama and Xi are saving that one for their next summit? Hopefully to be held at the Garden of Facing Realities.

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok and National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge blog

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