WASHINGTON – Emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are growing at such a rate that the world will likely exceed a safe limit in average global temperatures by the end of the century and veer into a higher temperature zone that would profoundly damage economic growth and most other aspects of life, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
Emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, need to stay below certain levels so that they do not push average global temperatures higher than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists and policymakers have warned. Average temperatures have risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 150 years or so, as mass industrialization spurred the increased combustion of fossil fuels.
The IEA’s Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map reported that carbon dioxide emissions grew at a rate of 1.4 percent in 2012, reaching a record high of 31.6 gigatons released into the atmosphere. On this current path, the world’s average temperatures are on track to increase between 6.48 degrees Fahrenheit to 9.54 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, said the IEA, an independent research group established by the world’s most industrialized nations.
“Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said. “But the problem is not going away – quite the opposite.”
Soaring temperatures would have profound implications for everything from water supplies, electricity production, agriculture and public health. At the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, dozens of participating countries, including the United States, agreed to take steps to prevent average global temperatures from increasing by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But the agreement was not legally binding, and worldwide emissions have increased.
Emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen in the United States recently to levels not seen since the mid-1990s, largely due to a natural gas boom that has prompted a shift in power generation away from coal. The IEA report noted that “China experienced the largest growth in CO2 emissions (300 megatons), but the increase was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade,” driven in part by the greater deployment of renewable energy.
The IEA’s predictions arrived on the heels of a new measure to address climate change announced over the weekend at a California meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. The United States and China agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a highly potent heat-trapping chemical used as refrigerant in appliances. If the use of HFCs were left unchecked, they could account for 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the White House said.
“The agreement between President Obama and President Xi to work together to address HFCs is a significant breakthrough,” said Andrew Steer, chief executive of the World Resources Institute, a Washington environmental group.
Still, reducing HFCs addresses only a small element of climate change. To get back on track for a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise in average global temperatures, governments would have to take aggressive steps in other areas besides HFC reductions. About two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions come from the world’s power plants, the IEA report said.