Just two degrees Celsius – but trillions in costs

The United Nations climate change panel report has a kind of ”bad news-good news” feel

There’s a sobering, and challenging, paragraph in the latest United Nations climate change panel’s report – it’s on page 29 of the policy maker summary, if you’re interested – that underscores financial hurdles standing between us and keeping the earth’s temperature in check.

The basic gist is this: if we’re going to cut emissions enough to keep average worldwide temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees Celsius, it’s going to require big changes in energy investment patterns – and it’s going to cost trillions. (That two degree limit, by the way, was agreed in 2009 in Copenhagen, including by the United States, though it’s not legally binding.)

This week’s big release, part of the first major report issued by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 2007, has a kind of ”bad news-good news” feel.

First the bad news, according to the report: the world, at least so far, is doing a pretty miserable job of tackling the issue, as evidenced by the last decade’s performance: emissions, despite our best intentions, grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades.

More optimistically, however, the report concludes it isn’t too late to start in the quest of keep temperatures rising to unacceptable levels.

But dallying isn’t an option.

According to the report, a pretty meaty document, with 16 chapters cobbled together by more than 400 authors, limiting the increase in global mean temperature means lowering global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent compared with 2010 by mid-century – and to near-zero by the end of this century.

And near-zero might not be enough. Carbon dioxide may even have to be removed from the atmosphere.

How do you do it? Use less energy, for one. A lot less.

“Reducing energy use would give us more flexibility in the choice of low-carbon energy technologies, now and in the future,” said Ramón Pichs-Madruga, one of the panel’s three co-chairs.

Why is Pichs-Madruga’s native Cuba so interested in emissions and climate change? Well, his country fears entire cities on the island nation might be wiped out, if the most-dire predictions become reality.

Innovation, from companies including ABB, will be indispensable.

For instance, ABB drives–including those installed at famed Swiss chocolatier Lindt & Sprüngli–make industrial motors more efficient, saving energy equivalent to 100 million households annually. Pretty sweet, huh?

The company is also working to boost the efficiency of the electricity systems that deliver remote wind and solar power to urban areas and helping create new, less-polluting transportation systems for buses and cars.

After all, in places like the US, transportation contributes to nearly a third of annual greenhouse gas releases, second only to the electricity generation. Of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, transport accounts for a quarter, according to the European Commission.

And while traditional energy sources aren’t going away, we can help make them cleaner.

Ottmar Edenhofer, the German economist, university professor and expert on climate change, says there’s no one way to save the planet. Everybody’s going to have to pull together.

“Many different pathways lead to a future within the boundaries set by the two degrees Celsius goal,” said Edenhofer, another of the co-chairs of the panel behind the U.N. report. “All of these require substantial investments. Avoiding further delays in mitigation and making use of a broad variety of technologies can limit the associated costs.”

In other words, it’s going to be expensive. But we can’t afford to wait.

Image credit: David J under a CC license via Flickr. Image was cropped.

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About the author

John-Philip Miller

I’m the senior editor in ABB’s group corporate communications team, in Zurich. For most of my career I’ve been a reporter, at Bloomberg News in Zurich and then for the last 10 years at The Associated Press in Idaho.
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