Heat and Hope: Time Running Out for Steep Emissions Cuts

Washington, D.C.-The world will have to reduce emissions more drastically than has been widely predicted, essentially ending the emission of carbon dioxide by 2050 to avoid catastrophic disruption to the world's climate, according to State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World, released today by the Worldwatch Institute. Yet opportunities abound in renewable energy and efficiency improvements, agriculture and forestry, and the resilience of societies for slowing and managing climate change, according to the book's 47 authors.

"We're privileged to live at a moment in history when we can still avert a climate catastrophe that would leave the planet hostile to human development and well-being," said Worldwatch Vice President for Programs Robert Engelman, project co-director for State of the World 2009. "But there's not much time left. Sealing the deal to save the global climate will require mass public support and worldwide political will to shift to renewable energy, new ways of living, and a human scale that matches the atmosphere's limits."

Into a Warming World, the 26th edition of the State of the World series, addresses the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as prepare to adapt to climate change. The Earth's average temperature has already risen by more than 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, with much of that increase attributed to human activities. Nearly 1 degree Celsius of additional warming may already be in store, based on past emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that have not yet made their influence felt on surface temperatures.

A chapter by climate scientist W. L. Hare concludes that in order to avoid a catastrophic climate tipping point, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak before 2020 and drop 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, with further reductions beyond that date. Emissions of carbon dioxide would actually need to ‘go negative'-with more being absorbed than emitted-during the second half of this century. Hare's research finds that even a warming of 2 degrees Celsius poses unacceptable risks to key natural and human systems, including significant loss of species, major reductions in food-production capacity in developing countries, severe water stress for hundreds of millions of people, and significant sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

A successful climate strategy will motivate rapid reductions in emissions as well as major investments in adaptation, with both efforts necessarily financed mostly by the world's wealthier countries and people, the book argues. Such a strategy ultimately will also need to address the warming climate's connection to food production, population growth, and the global economy. Economists have estimated the cost of avoiding dangerous climate change at around $1-2.5 trillion a year for decades to come; yet the costs of not doing so are expected to be far higher.

In order to assess the threat the climate crisis presents-and explore innovative and practical solutions-Worldwatch enlisted more authors for this book than for any previous edition of the series, many hailing from the developing countries most vulnerable to climate change. The resulting framework offers a roadmap for a world that not only survives climate change, but emerges more stable, more just, and more prosperous.

At the center of this framework, the book's opening chapter notes ten key challenges* that must be adopted as part of any successful path to mitigation and climate change adaptation and resilience. (Resilience refers to societies' capacity to adapt to dramatic change without suffering significant reductions in governance, security, prosperity, or quality of life.)

Simultaneously addressing these interlinked and challenging issues could lay the groundwork for a world that will not merely bounce back from both the economic and climate crises, but surge forward. A new U.S. administration and impending climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 could finally break the gridlock that has long plagued climate policy.

"We can't afford to let the Copenhagen climate conference fail," said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "The outcome of this meeting will be written in the history books-and in the lasting composition of the world's atmosphere."

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For more information, visit our State of the World 2009 resources page.