WWF: We Have Until 2014 To Stop Global Warming

Coal-Fired Power Plants
Coal-fired power plants, such as this one in the Conesville, Ohio, are by far the 'dirtiest' means of producing electricity in terms of amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. This has made coal a primary target in the effort to keep total emissions of carbon dioxide below the threshold that will yield two degrees celcius of warming. Scientists have settled identified this threshold as the marker for avoiding "catastrophic" consequences from climate change. Peter Essick

It’s no secret that the world is warming, but a new report published by the World Wildlife Fund suggests we may not have as much time to mull solutions as we think. If the world doesn’t commit to green technologies by 2014, the report says, runaway global warming and economic meltdown are all but unstoppable.

Written by a group at the experts at Australian insurance consultancy Climate Risk, the transformation to a low-carbon world requires an effort “greater than any other industrial transformation witnessed in our history.” At minimum, the world needs to embrace – and by embrace, they mean to the absolute maximum – low-carbon technologies by 2014. A minimum growth in all green industries of 22% a year is necessary to achieve that goal, according to their research, and that’s just to cut emissions to 63% of 1990 levels by 2020.

But the WWF has more ambitious plans: a reduction to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, an industrial revolution that would require growths between 24% and 29% every year. This is the best way to stave off the doomsday scenario of 2 degree Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warming across the board, according to the report. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

The research relied on complex Monte Carlo models of industrial growth, resource allocation, and technological advance, but the basic reasoning is thus: total greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are estimated 463 parts per million. Scientific research shows that a good comfortable spot for our atmosphere is about 400 ppm. But at around 475 ppm, a threshold that we are dangerously close to crossing, runaway climate change becomes increasingly more likely, at which point it will be difficult if not impossible to put the brakes on global warming.

Now, having said all that, it’s important to note that this isn’t the first doomsday climate change scenario to emerge, especially recently. Just today, two British Cabinet ministers showed off their own doomsday map, detailing rising sea levels and submerged cities that would result from a 4 degree Celsius (7.2 degree Fahrenheit) rise in global temps. President Obama has pledged a greenhouse gas reduction of 80 percent by 2050 (an easy promise to make with a two term limit), while the EU has stated that it will match those efforts if a deal is sealed at December’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.

But the WWF report, if taken seriously, places a new urgency on the issue. For one, most climate strategies rely upon an incremental ratcheting down of emissions while slowly transitioning to low-carbon sources of energy all the way up to 2050. According to WWF, this schedule simply won’t hack it. Further, WWF points out that only three of the 20 green technologies they’ve reviewed are moving forward fast enough to hit the 2014 deadline: wind, solar, and biodiesel. Other technological initiatives like low-carbon agriculture, sustainable forestry, and other forms of green energy generation are sorely lacking. The outlook, it seems, is dim.

What happens if we miss the deadline? According to the WWF report, from there things become increasingly difficult. Post-2014, low-carbon industries will need to grow at a minimum of 29% per year, and that’s just to have a better than 50% chance of staving off that nearly 4-degree Fahrenheit spike in global temperatures. But the news isn’t all bad: while the transition will be tough, long term investment in green energies should pay off, with renewable energy savings alone in the period between 2013 and 2050 expected to hit $47 trillion if we cut by 80 percent, a positive number among many grim figures.

Naturally, models are models and scenarios are but scenarios. The most important takeaway is this: no matter whether you believe in runaway warming or not, technology is the way forward in our warming world, and right now we are woefully under-prepared for the transition to a low-carbon future.

[WWF via New Scientist]