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A Fast-Approaching Deadline on Climate Change

According to the IPCC, we must freeze and reverse emissions in the next eight years. We have the tools; now it’s up to us to use them.

Delegates of the third working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the summary of their fourth assessment on climate change on Friday, which focuses on mitigation policy. The summary wraps up a series of three reports on climate change released over the past few months. The reports focus on the scientific basis for global warming, human vulnerability and adaptation, and the policy quagmire that our national, state, and local governments are now finding themselves in.

The report emphasized what the Center for American Progress has been saying—we need to move much more quickly. CAP convened an international taskforce in 2005 to examine the threat of climate change and make recommendations on a global strategy. One of the taskforce’s fundamental recommendations was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level suited to limit temperature rise so that it does not increase beyond 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. CAP has since advocated national policies of varying nature, including tighter CAFE standards, energy efficiency, and a cap and trade emissions program.

The first IPCC report confirmed with 90 percent certainty that anthropogenic warming has caused a 1.4 degree Fahrenheit rise in the average global temperature. And even more warming is locked into the system. We run the risk of reaching the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit rise over the pre-industrial temperature. If we reach that point, it will significantly increase the likelihood of irreversibly melting the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, causing a dramatic rise in sea levels.

According to the IPCC’s stabilization scenarios, emissions must peak no later than 2015 if we are to avoid a 1.4 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase. After peaking, emissions must be gradually cut 60-85 percent of current levels by 2050.

That means we have, at most, eight years to freeze and reverse emissions. It is a stringent objective, but it is not impossible to achieve. There is a range of policies to employ, and the IPCC and others encourage a portfolio of approaches.

Emissions can be reduced through sustainable and responsible forest management policies that capitalize on the role trees play in the carbon cycle, sound agricultural land management and cultivation techniques, better transport planning and more fuel efficient or hybrid vehicles, and more efficient building design, to name a few options.

In some cases, the technology is available to make immediate change and in others, the capability is expected to develop within decades. Such is the case with advanced carbon capture and storage technology. When it comes to energy efficiency and conservation, it could simply be a matter of policies that give incentive to change—banning incandescent light bulbs, granting renewable energy production credits, or issuing rebates on energy efficient appliances. While we have options in how we proceed, we cannot choose inaction. All resources and outlets will need to be employed, but we can make the task an invigorating one.

For more on CAP’s policy solutions on climate change and energy, see:

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