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CLIMATE CHANGE: Time Running Out on Vows to Act, Scientists Warn

Stephen Leahy

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Sep 24 2009 (IPS) - Promises are easy to make. But promises by world leaders will not halt the heat-trapping carbon emissions that are dialing-up global temperatures and altering the climate, say critics and climate researchers meeting in this U.S. Midwestern city.

As evidenced at the U.N. leader’s summit on climate change in New York Tuesday, the world’s big economies are refusing to commit to actions that will prevent this and future generations from inheriting a hostile climate no other humans have ever faced.

“Do we have the social and political will to deal with a problem that we will only see partially in our lifetimes?” wonders Don McConnell, president of Battelle Energy Technology, the world’s largest non-profit research centre.

“What most don’t realise is that the biggest impact from climate change will be shifts in precipitation, not temperature increase,” McConnell told IPS at the McCormick Energy Solutions Conference at Ohio State University this week.

Such changes have already been documented, with increasing frequency and severity of flooding and droughts. In July, researchers reported in the journal Nature Geoscience that the normal band of heavy rainfall around the equator has been creeping north, leaving areas once blessed with abundant rainfall high and dry.

“We’re talking about the most prominent rainfall feature on the planet, one that many people depend on as the source of their freshwater because there is no groundwater to speak of where they live,” said Julian Sachs, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, in a release.

Global energy use is expected to climb 55 percent between 2005 and 2030, said McConnell, and without major changes, most of that increase will come from fossil fuels – pushing carbon emissions far beyond the point of unstoppable, catastrophic climate change, scientists agree.

To have an even chance of stabilising the climate at roughly two degrees C of warming, the current two- to three-percent annual growth in carbon emissions must flatline between 2015 and 2020 and start to decline by three percent per year, according to the latest scientific evidence. That means the target for the U.N. climate meeting in Copenhagen in December is a new international agreement to reduce global emissions by 50 percent compared to 1990 and to do that by 2050.

“The magnitude of this problem is not widely appreciated (in the U.S.),” said Steven Koonin, undersecretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Once carbon dioxide is up in the atmosphere, it is effectively up there forever,” Koonin, a physicist and former chief scientist for BP Oil, told IPS in Columbus.

U.S. per capita emissions are 20 tonnes of carbon per year, while the global average is four tonnes, but in order to stabilise the climate, that average must be cut to two tonnes, he said.

“Energy touches everything,” Koonin said, making change both complicated and difficult. Energy systems are integrated, so low-carbon fuels would have to work in all vehicles, for example. And, in the U.S., where much of the energy system works well, there is little incentive to make changes.

While U.S. President Obama told world leaders this week about the “risk (of) consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe”, the U.S. government has not passed its own proposed climate legislation that would only mandate the most modest of cuts in emissions.

Despite the urgency and benefits to the U.S. economy, “The country is not ready to do anything right now,” said Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a non-partisan NGO, and a former energy official in the Bill Clinton administration.

Tackling climate change through energy efficiency and other measures means the U.S. could cut its foreign oil costs, saving 650 billion dollars a year, and electricity prices would fall by 2020, according to a number of studies.

A New York University study shows that acting on climate change would bring nine dollars in benefits for every dollar spent in terms of cleaner air, water and energy, Romm told participants at the McCormick conference. Another study estimated that 1.7 million clean energy jobs could be created.

As one of the most energy wasteful countries in the world, the U.S. could meet its reduction targets with improvements in energy efficiency alone, he said. The U.S. also has many natural gas power plants that aren’t being used simply because coal is cheaper to burn.

Natural gas emits half the carbon that coal does, so there could be a 50 percent savings on CO2 emissions with a switch.

“By 2020, climate change will be a transcendent issue in the U.S., but it might be too late,” Romm warned.

When IPS pointed out that delaying significant reductions until 2020 means carbon concentrations in the atmosphere could soar from the current 387 parts per million (ppm) to a very dangerous 550 ppm or more by 2100, Romm replied: “If you understand the U.S. political system, there is no way you can be optimistic that we won’t get to 800 ppm or 1,000.”

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