A How-To Guide on Avoiding the Global Turning Point

Last week, the Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development released their final report, facilitated by the United Nations Foundation and the distinguished scientific society Sigma Xi. The report is a roadmap for global climate change and promotes a two-pronged strategy: avoiding the unmanageable (mitigation) and managing the unavoidable (adaptation).

The scientific state of play, similarly outlined in the IPCC’s report earlier this month, is sobering. In fact, a large section is dedicated to adapting to the effects of climate change that we can not feasibly avoid at this point. The global-average surface temperature is 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 degrees Fahrenheit) above what it was a little over 250 years ago. And, if carbon dioxide emissions grow according to relatively reserved calculations, that temperature will continue to rise by 0.2 to 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.36 to 0.72 degrees Fahrenheit) each decade over the next 100 years. The group writes:

In our judgment and that of a growing number of other analysts and groups, however, increases beyond 2 degrees Celsius to 2.5 degrees Celsius above the 1750 level will entail sharply rising risks of crossing a climate
“tipping point” that could lead to intolerable impacts on human well-being, in spite of all feasible attempts at adaptation.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly what those “intolerable impacts” will look like, the group suggests that it will include an increase in extreme weather events, an accelerating rise in sea-levels, and mass shifting of ecosystem boundaries.

The good news is that the report finds opportunities for confronting the challenge of global climate change, many of which hold promise for boosting the global economy also. These include using non-fossil fuel energy supply options, building coal power plants only if they can be affordably retrofitted to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, increasing efficiency in transportation and in the building sector, expanding the use of biofuels in transportation, promoting reforestation, and tripling or quadrupling public and private investment in energy R&D. If we make feasible advancements in these areas, carbon dioxide emissions in 2100 could be reduced to 20 percent of the dire mid-range estimate given above, enough to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at a level below the possible global turning point.

It’s also important to note that shifting to a new energy economy will be vital to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, as the report makes clear. It is no coincidence that there are 2 billion people around the world living on less than $2 a day and also 2 billion who are energy impoverished.

The SEG report, prepared as input for the upcoming meeting of the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development, recognizes the central role that the UN will play in the efforts listed above and establishes a list of hefty goals for the UN to achieve. Those include, “helping developing countries and countries with economies in transition to finance and deploy energy efficient and new energy technologies, accelerating negotiations to develop a successor international framework for addressing climate change and sustainable development, and educating all about the opportunities to adopt mitigation and adaptation measures.” It will be impossible to achieve the necessary reductions in carbon dioxide emissions unless the problem is confronted multilaterally and with a firm commitment from all nations. And, as always, it will also require active engagement through the UN and the application of adequate political will by key member states, especially the United States.