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In spite of all the talk about reducing global carbon emissions during the Rio and Kyoto summits, countries are failing to reach stated carbon reduction goals. In fact, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program, there is today about 20% more carbon in the atmosphere since 2000.

Another recent study commissioned by the World Bank states that “Today’s climate could warm from the current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emissions-reduction pledges.” A 4°C warming would result in extreme heat waves, declining food stocks, ecosystem loss and sea level rise. Humankind’s ability to adapt to such extremes, according to the report, would be in question.

Heat-trapping carbon emissions are the prime cause of global warming. International agreements, after years of negotiations, have set a goal of reducing greenhouse emissions to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. If global temperatures rise more than 2 °C, the effects of climate change are likely to become irreversible.

Approximately half of the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere are absorbed by the forests and oceans, acting as heat sinks. But as forest cover decreases worldwide and the oceans become more acidic due to the carbon increase, the mitigating effects of these heat sinks becomes diminished. Moreover, the marine food chain is threatened by the loss of coral reefs to the increased acidification of the water.

Hopes of limiting global temperatures below the 2 °C threshold are dimming, but it is not too late to undertake mitigating strategies. According to Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, “Bridging the gap remains do-able with existing technologies and policies.” The cumulative effects of current efforts such as investments in renewable energy, energy-efficiency standards in new homes, and fuel-efficiency gains in transportation will become more apparent in the near future.

“Bridging the gap remains do-able with existing technologies and policies.”

Global warming mitigating strategies will also provide new economic opportunities in fields such as renewable energy, energy-efficient technologies relating to transportation and food production, and many new products and services will need to be developed with sustainability in mind. But developing nations such as China and India must rely on fossil-fuel sources to bring their economies to levels that meet basic human needs. According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, 1,199 new coal-burning power plants have been proposed across the world.

Clearly, leadership in efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions must come from developed countries which have the economic resources to undertake mitigation strategies. But in the US, leadership is slow to accept even the reality of climate change, and this most pressing issue was not even mentioned during the run up to the Presidential elections.

This week, delegates from nearly 200 nations are meeting in Doha, Qatar, for the latest round of talks under the treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Their agenda is modest this year, with no new emissions targets and little progress expected on a protocol that is supposed to be concluded in 2015 and take effect in 2020.

Efforts by individuals to reduce energy use and learn ways to become more energy-efficient are often dismissed as too little to make a difference. But the nation’s carbon output is the sum total of our individual carbon footprints. Industrial and municipal contributions are also determined by our collective needs for goods, services, infrastructure and energy. Political leaders, like savvy marketers, keep a close eye on demographic trends, and when ‘we the people’ choose to make energy-efficiency a priority, our ‘leaders’ will follow accordingly.

We can view these latest reports as ‘doom and gloom’ and disregard them or become depressed. Or we can use this information to reinforce our commitment to a healthy future, to set an example for others, and to get busy learning and working towards an energy-efficient, sustainable future. Which will you choose?

Additional Resource:
Turn Down the Heat – Why a 4 °C Warmer World Must be Avoided