International Report Charts Path to Deep Carbon Cuts

World’s 15 largest emitters must get serious about climate change, scientists say.

Coal-fired power plants like this one in Hamm, Germany, must have their emissions reduced if the world is to meet climate targets, says a new report.

Governments around the world are failing in their commitments to address climate change, a group of international science institutions warn in a new report, saying the window to prevent catastrophic warming will soon close.

"The world is engaged in an unrecognized, massive gamble with the future of the planet," economist and author Jeffrey Sachs warned at a news conference discussing the report, "Deep Decarbonization Pathways."

Produced by 30 scientific institutions from the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gases, the report was presented to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday morning.

Sachs, who directs Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York, said a full report will be released next spring, but the contributors felt it was important to release the interim results now, ahead of the next global discussions on climate change in Paris in September. (See "Data Deleted From UN Climate Report Highlights Controversies.")

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative of Columbia's Earth Institute, and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, a nonprofit policy research institute in Paris, are coordinating the effort.

Climate and energy system modelers from the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and the United Kingdom worked on the report.

The team found that national governments around the world have "made very little progress in achieving [emissions reductions] and have made insufficient analyses of how to achieve it," says Sachs.

Specifically, major countries are falling short of the commitments made in 2010, when they agreed that global temperature increase should not exceed two degrees Celsius beyond preindustrial levels. Warming beyond that would lead to catastrophic changes in weather patterns and sea-level rise. (See "Battle Plan for Climate Change: How to Cut Greenhouse Gases.")

The window to avoid such warming will close in a few years, Sachs warns. To get there, there must be "a deep transformation of the global energy system," says the report.

What Must Be Done

The report lays out four critical initiatives that governments must pursue immediately if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided.

The first is that electricity generation needs to produce lower emissions. The world needs to ramp up clean, renewable sources of energy and bridging technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration for existing fossil-fuel power plants. (See "Clean Coal Test.")

Second, the transportation sector needs to shift from relying on fossil fuels to using electricity, so overall emissions are reduced and those produced are better controlled. Third, there must be major gains in energy efficiency across the board, from buildings to industry. And fourth, deforestation needs to be curtailed to preserve natural systems that take up carbon. (See "Brazil Leads World in Reducing Emissions by Slashing Deforestation.")

The goal is to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions from man-made sources to between 12 and 15 billion tons a year by 2050. In comparison, last year the world emitted 35 billion tons.

Governments need to make a 60 percent reduction in emissions, from about 5 tons of carbon dioxide emitted on average per person to about 1.6 tons.

How Will This Be Accomplished?

This "deep transformation" will "depend on technologies that are not yet operating to scale," Sachs says. This includes not only electric cars and renewable energy, but also carbon capture and sequestration technology, although there remains "great uncertainty about the geological capacity to store carbon dioxide."

Also needed are improvements in energy storage and research on boosting the ability of plants and ecosystems to store carbon.

Countries must set long-term strategies focused on deep emissions cuts, Sachs says. Setting a price on carbon emissions, as many have suggested, would be a step in the right direction, but is "by far not sufficient," he says.

Significant investments are needed by public-private partnerships in clean technologies, "similar in scope to the Human Genome Project or the moon shot," says Sachs.

Political Challenges?

The ultimate goal of the report is to "get governments to look at the carbon budget and look at the reality of what they have promised," says Sachs. "They have just not done their homework to get there."

But David Victor, one of the lead authors of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in April, told National Geographic that it has been exceedingly difficult for governments to agree on global action.

"Intergovernmental bodies that require consensus are very bad at handling politically difficult topics," Victor says, suggesting that meaningful change is most likely to occur at the level of individual governments, and even states and institutions.

Many international discussions have been derailed by arguments over how much each country should cut its emissions and the responsibilities of developed versus developing nations.

Perhaps underscoring the challenge of reaching an agreement, at the same time as this report was released, the conservative Heartland Institute was hosting a conference in Las Vegas of 600 global warming skeptics.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.