When the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference opens in Paris on November 30, annual global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) will be about 32 billion metric tons. This figure is 10 percent higher than the 29 billion tons that were emitted in 2009, when the last major UN climate conference took place in Copenhagen.
There is no escaping the conclusion that we are playing Russian roulette with the environment by allowing CO2 emissions to continue to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides conservative benchmarks as to what is required to stabilize the average global temperature at its current level of around 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial average of 56.7 degrees. According to the IPCC, global CO2 emissions need to fall by about 40 percent below current levels within 20 years, to around 20 billion tons, and 80 percent by 2050, to seven billion tons.
In the run-up to the Paris conference, 156 countries—including the United States, Russia, India, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, and all of Western Europe—have pledged to cut their CO2 emissions. But taken together, these pledges are not nearly enough to bring global emissions down to 20 billion tons by 2035. On top of that, even these inadequate pledges are not likely to be made legally binding in Paris. Political leaders throughout the world, in short, continue to court ecological disaster rather than mount a viable climate-stabilization program.
This situation is shameful under any circumstances, but it is especially so because a simple and viable path to climate stabilization is right before us. The global economy can bring global emissions down to the IPCC target of 20 billion tons within 20 years if most countries—especially those with either large GDPs or populations—devote between 1.5 and 2 percent per year of GDP to investments in energy efficiency and clean, low-emission renewable-energy sources. The consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas will also need to fall by about 35 percent over this same period—i.e., at an average 2.2 percent rate of decline per year. These investments aimed at dramatically raising energy-efficiency standards and expanding the supply of clean renewable-energy sources—what we can term a global green-growth program—would also generate tens of millions of new jobs in all regions of the world. That’s because building a green economy requires hiring workers at much greater rates than maintaining the world’s currently dominant fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure. In its essence, this is the entire global green-growth program.
Of course, if it’s all so simple, then why do global emissions keep rising? Raw greed and corrupt politics loom large, of course. But there is more at play, including serious misunderstandings on the left as to what can and should be done.