04/09/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

We Are Still Locked in for a Certain Amount of Global Warming

Unlike its larger rival Exxon Mobil, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has called on world leaders to take "rapid and focused" action against the "disruptive impacts" of man-made climate change.

Earlier this week, together with 70 other major companies, including Unilever and BT, it urged governments across the globe to lay down a timeline, and strategy to achieve zero net carbon emissions before the end of this century.

The collective call for action comes less than a week after the head of the World Bank warned that warmer temperatures will usher in conflicts over food and water within the next 5 to 10 years: "There's just no question about it," said Jim Yong Kim last Friday.

His stark warning came a few days after the United Nation's issued its most sobering account on the state of our climate yet: "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched" said Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Things are worse than we had predicted. We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated," said Saleemul Huq from the Independent University in Bangladesh.

That brutal assessment came six months after the Nobel Peace Prize-winning body warned that our planet is warming much faster than expected: global temperatures may now breach the two degrees celsius mark within the next thirty years.

Calls for greater action come as the UN prepares to release the third and final installment of its blockbuster climate series, the solutions to global warming, this Sunday.

And, according to leaked drafts of the report, the panel will call for a 40 to 70 percent cut in international carbon emissions by 2050. It says that such a steep cut is necessary in order to keep world temperatures below the agreed target of two degrees celsius by 2100.

"The window is shutting very rapidly on the 2 degrees target. The debate is drifting to maybe we can adapt to 2 degrees, or even 4," warns Johan Rockstrom, the head of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

But, according to Michael Oppenheimer from Princeton University, the contrast between these two outcomes "is the difference between driving on an icy road at 30 mph versus 90 mph. It's risky at 30, but deadly at 90."

In order to limit global warming to the 2C mark, the UN says that three quarters of existing fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground.

According to the draft, with the right amount of investment, clean energy could displace dirty fossil fuels as the main source of power by the middle of this century. It will need to quadruple: It currently accounts for about 17 percent of electricity worldwide.

That message will meet fierce opposition from the oil, gas and coal sector. Last week, oil titan Exxon Mobil said that the world's climate policies are "highly unlikely" to stop it from selling its fossil fuels in the future.

But, according to a recent Citibank report, the "age of renewables" has already dawned in the US. Wind and solar power are both becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels, including coal and gas.

However, as carbon emissions remain trapped in the atmosphere for decades, if not centuries, even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, the planet is still locked in for a certain amount of warming.

That means that certain efforts to absorb some of that CO2 may need to be taken. This can include simple steps such as planting more trees which soak up carbon as they grow.

But, it can also involve more risky measures such as; dropping tons of iron into the ocean to create carbon absorbing algae blooms; putting a giant umbrella in space to block out the sun's rays; spraying sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight; and burying emissions deep underground.

As such technologies are risky and largely untested, they could usher in disastrous consequences across the globe. Moreover, according to the UN's latest report, such strategies "might invite complacency regarding mitigation efforts."

Given the many unknowns, world governments ought to start by tackling the problem head on: by reining in emissions at home, and then committing to a new global treaty when they gather in Paris at the end of next year.

Although previous efforts to strike a deal have floundered as nations squabbled over who should make the brunt of cuts, the U.S., China and the EU have all pledged to lead the charge against climate change. Analysts now hope that commitment by the world's three largest emitters will pave the way for a strong accord in 2015.

In the words of Rajendra Pachauri, who has headed the IPCC for 12 years: "We will have to work much harder to win this battle now than we would have been required 10 or 15 years ago. The challenge is daunting but I don't for a moment feel pessimistic."

According to Jim Yong Kim, the world needs a global action plan similar to the one used to fight HIV:

"Is there enough basic science research going into renewable energy? Not even close. Are there ways of taking discoveries made in universities and quickly moving them into industry? No. Are there ways of testing those innovations? Are there people thinking about scaling up those innovations? We need a plan that's equal to the challenge. We still don't have one."

As recent history reveals, humanity is able to respond to seemingly insurmountable challenges and succeed.

In 1939 at the start of World War II, the U.S. built 2,000 airplanes. At a time when "naysayers doubted 50,000 was a reachable" target, by 1944 that number had jumped nearly fifty-fold to reach 96,000: "It's a matter of will, not one of magic," writes Mark Bittman in the The New York Times.

"The United States is one of the most resourceful and innovative societies in the world. We are a nation of problem solvers. Responding to climate change will test our resolve and ingenuity in ways unlike any other environmental challenge we have ever faced" noted America's leading scientific society the AAAS in its latest report. But, "the sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost."

As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai once said: "In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground." With our way of life hanging in the balance, "that time is now," for nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.