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The World Can Turn the Corner on Climate Change by 2020. Here's How

02/11/2015 03:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

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Photo credit: Olearys

This was originally posted on EDF Voices.

When it comes to climate action, it's a good thing that smart people keep building scenarios for cleaning up global energy production. Those visions of the future are necessary -- but they tend to lack an essential ingredient.

One team of researchers recently reviewed 11 such studies, all of them offering plans for "50 to 90 percent reductions in global CO2 emissions by mid-century." But as the writer David Roberts observed last month in Grist, "most decarbonization scenarios are thought experiments, not practical roadmaps...We need to start thinking in practical terms about how to get the technologies we need ready."

I couldn't agree more. In fact, for the past, year Environmental Defense Fund has been drawing up a short-term blueprint for climate action, part of new strategic plan that will guide all of our work for the next five years.

We came up with a program to accomplish something audacious: stopping once and for all the centuries-long rise in global greenhouse gas emissions and seeing them peak, level off and begin to decline within the next five years. We call it turning the corner toward a stable climate.

Of course it won't be easy and EDF can't do it alone -- it will take hard work by people all over the world. But the window of opportunity is open. Though global CO2 emissions from energy use are still going up, in recent years their rate of increase has been cut in half.

To capitalize on that and turn the corner once and for all, here are four of the big levers we need to pull now:

1. Focus on the biggest emitters: The U.S., China and Europe.

For the United States, turning the corner by 2020 means seeing through the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants -- our single biggest source of carbon pollution -- while making sure the billions of dollars that will be spent on upgrading our electric grid are invested wisely.

In the U.S. and Europe alike, it means sweeping aside outdated regulations that are getting in the way of clean energy and energy efficiency -- which is why our fastest-growing program at EDF is devoted to doing just that.

And for China, where EDF has been working for 20 years, it means, by 2020, capping half of the nation's carbon emissions, improving energy efficiency by 25 percent and shifting the country's energy mix to one-third renewable energy, natural gas and nuclear -- up from 15 percent in 2013.

In November, the U.S. and China made a historic announcement about cutting global warming pollution and committing themselves to the clean energy path. Now we're going pedal to the metal down that road.

2. Reduce short-lived climate pollutants such as methane.

Methane is 84 times more dangerous to our climate than carbon dioxide in the short term, and it accounts for about 25 percent of the warming we're experiencing today. Any serious plan to combat global warming must address methane, which is is vented and leaked from wellheads, compressors, and pipelines all across the natural gas system. (Natural gas is mostly methane.)

A few years ago, when EDF began sounding the alarm about methane, almost no one was talking about it. Now we're starting to make genuine progress. The federal government has proposed rules to control emissions and set a target of achieving a 40-45-percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 -something we can do at bargain prices.

According to a study by consultant ICF International, if we stopped 40 percent of methane emissions, the cost of a thousand cubic feet of natural gas would increase by an average of just one penny. It's the biggest environmental bargain I know.

3. Halt deforestation in the Amazon.

Global deforestation is responsible for about 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions, and clearing will go on until we make forests more valuable alive than dead. A global carbon marketplace where rainforest nations are rewarded for preserving their forests is a key strategy.

EDF has been working with the Kayapo and other Amazonian tribes while encouraging carbon markets in California and elsewhere to allow capital to flow to the forest defenders. Already, there are encouraging signs: Brazil has reduced its rate of deforestation by 70 percent over the past decade.

Our goal by 2020 is to see zero net emissions of greenhouse gases from Amazon deforestation.

4. Tackle the market failure that caused this problem in the first place.

The president and the EPA have used many, though not all, of the options they have to cut carbon pollution under existing law. Turning the corner by 2020 doesn't depend on Congressional action -- but we cannot solve the climate crisis without action in Washington.

Accelerating the clean energy technology we need for long-term decarbonization requires a price and limit on carbon, a trigger for a worldwide market correction that benefits clean energy.

It's Economics 101: When putting carbon pollution into our common atmosphere is no longer free, industry will have a bottom-line incentive to find clean alternatives -- and investors, inventors and entrepreneurs will join the race.

Making climate pollution a cost of doing business is the path many governments are already taking, from California to Brussels to Beijing. It's time for Washington to follow their example.

These and other ideas for turning the corner are laid out in detail in EDF's new strategic plan. Please let me know what you think -- and even more important, please join us as we take on the hard work of turning this blueprint into reality.

See my earlier post for the climate breakthroughs in 2014 that give me hope for 2015 and beyond.