National Geographic News
Photo of cows standing in a field in front of a coal-fired power plant in Germany.

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.

Photograph by Martin Meissner, AP

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published July 8, 2014

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+.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

Mr. Taylor, I apologize for the implied disrespect. I ask you as well, do not make  a comment that implies I, or anyone else who is OBVIOUSLY versed is not educated enough to form a reasonable opinion. Also as passionate about your beliefs, I am of mine. That being said I believe we are running out of time and quite frankly there are far more educated people than me or YOU dealing with this matter, researching and crunching numbers and the fact of the matter is a large majority conclude man made problem, requires immediate man made solution. I plainly state that this is my opinion and yes I have formed my conclusion, and yes I will be perfectly blunt about my position, no personal disrespect to you intended. I apologize, Jeff

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

So the question of, "Global warming" essentially comes down to the following;

One camp touts the thinking that we are in a natural cycle of warming. That man and the man-made green house gases have very little or nothing to do with the current climate.Some state that we are actually in a cooling cycle. Some believe that we should be concentrating on, "adaptation", essentially stating we have to accept the fact that a natural climate change is inevitable, that is what we are experiencing and there is nothing that man can do about it, so we have to learn to live with it.

Then there is the other camp, which states that although climate change is cyclical, this time around it is being heavily influence by primarily man-made greenhouse gases. There are certainly other factors involved, like deforestation, but the primary cause is the dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. So that being the case, it is generally believed that man can do something about it, namely drastically reduce the CO2 emissions. Also, there is technology, somewhat in infant stage, that would help clean some of the CO2 currently in the atmosphere.

When speaking of past climate changes, both warming and cooling, it essentially breaks down like this;

Cooling periods generally caused by the suns rays being blocked from warming the earth due to an asteroid(s) hit, or volcanic activity.

Warming periods, as the smoke cleared, so to speak, from the above events, allowing the sun to shine through, the earth began to warm. The Pliocene period represents most closely the warming we are experiencing today. Interestingly, CO2 was the primary cause at that time, though through a natural order. The CO2 and greenhouse gases peaked and the warming trend was over. This time around there is no peak in sight unless we start to drastically reduce the man-made output, as it sits now, it is ever increasing.

It's a matter of which camp is providing the most conclusive and scientifically sound evidence. For me, the debate winners are clearly the proponents of global warming who make the case that manmade greenhouse gases are the primary culprit in what we are experiencing today and if we get on the stick there is a good chance that we can mitigate the situation before it gets entirely out of hand.

But that is just my, "uneducated" position as Mr. Taylor points out.

peter  taylor
peter taylor

Jeffrey S; i will go through this report to see if I can work out just WHEN carbon dioxide levels will come down, IF the world gets to 50% reduction by 2050 (a very, very big if - because of the cost). If the changes we see now are indeed caused by current excessive levels, then no amount of mitigation will 'save us' because it is the next two decades when the crunch comes - environmentally and economically. Adaptation is where the funds need to go - to create resilient systems of support - and right now the percentage of spend is skewed toward mitigation (why? because there is no profit in adaptation!).

And please don't slag off your critics on global warming science, some of them clearly know more than you do. As a professional environmental scientist, it is my opinion that none of the current climate changes are unprecedented, neither the absolute temperature, the rate of change, ice-melts, or storms: yet they cause immense problems - because these things are naturally cyclic (and yes i do believe in GHG effects too!) and in previous warm periods we did not have 7 billion people sequestering 40% of the biosphere's productivity.

This focus upon electricity is hugely galling to many of us who have been engaged in real development issues - soil, water, food, forests, community stability and wildlife protection.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

Then fact of the matter is that we are in trouble. We are past the point of stopping the Global warming and the changes in the atmosphere that are occurring because of it. All we can hope for now is to mitigate the situation and before long that window of opportunity will pass us by as well.

Public rumblings of this problem started in the early 60's, and back then scientists were already predicting the effects of Global warming and those predictions are being realized.

As usual, we have waited 'till the 11th hour to start to accept the fact that we are facing a serious, possibly catastrophic problem. Yet there are still the naysayers, even with the scientific proof and observational evidence staring us in the face, that continue to be in denial and exasperate the problem and look for any straw to grab to support their thinking.

Looking past the denial, when has the world cooperated to do anything?

We just may have reached our, "Waterloo".

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

Could the author please tell me exactly how much we've warmed since the beginning of this century.


Developed countries are the main culprits. Though developing nations try hard to reduce carbon emissions in what ever manner as they can - Brazil is an example - the rest of the developed world seems to be non-commitant. It is best that all put their shoulders to the wheel to ensure a bright future. 

Diane Merriam
Diane Merriam

So we need to use technologies that don't exist to reduce emissions to a given goal, regardless of the lives lost, to prevent a future threat that is derived from models that haven't come close to being able to predict the present. Makes sense to me

John Bascom
John Bascom

This article ignores the tremendous costs of carbon reduction, and the fact that alternative technologies may simply never be feasible as envisioned.  The costs are ultimately borne by individual people, not governments or businesses, and these higher costs mean reduced standards of living for everyone, including the poor in third world nations.  I'm all for less pollution in our world; if anyone doubts man-made activities effect climate, I invite them to visit Los Angeles in the summer, or Beijing any time.  If we are unrealistic about controlling pollution, however, the cost in human misery may be worse than the climate change, the degree and effects of which honestly remain speculative. 

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@peter taylor  The more I think of it, the more annoying your reply becomes;

If you are so well versed on the matter, you should know that no one can predict when we will cross the threshold as there are too many variables that can come into play. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that we are headed in that direction.

If I read your response correctly, it seems you are saying that if in fact greenhouse gases are the major contributor, too late to do anything about it.

Is that also implying that we should not be concerned with drastically reducing CO2 out put through the reduction of use of fossil fuels. Coming up with an alternative to cement, or a better way to manufacture it, do you understand the correlation of the manufacture of cement and the amount of CO2 produced as a byproduct of it.

Why is electricity hugely galling? Or do you mean certain technologies used to drive the generators and used to store electricity is what you have objection to. Two entirely different concerns, and being a, "Professional environmental scientist" you certainly recognize the difference.I have not heard the argument against electricity in of itself, so again I would ask why is electricity galling?

I earnestly await you to, "educate" me.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@peter taylor  First we have to work to mitigate the existing problem and in the course of mitigation work to adapt.

There is absolutely profit to be made in adaptation, though at this point monetary considerations should be secondary, part of the sacrifice I speak of. One good example of profit to be had is alternative fuel in the car industry. The reason it is not particularly profitable at this time is because the general public, as a whole, just doesn't see the urgency. So in this respect it is a matter of changing minds.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@peter taylor  where have I slaged off on critics of global warming science where they clearly know more?

My statement of climate changes being unprecedented is referring to the current cause. Man-made greenhouse gases. If I am wrong in this please explain the natural mechanism that is the current cause. I am open minded to reasonable, quantifiable explanations.

Tell me that man has not had a substantial influence on the problem and continues to do so.

Tell me we are not behind in our efforts to deal with the problem and as a whole things are getting better.

Where have I slaged off on anyone who has anything reasonable to express, other than those who are in obvious denial that a serious problem exists, (there is a serious problem is there not)?

Curious, what real development issues were you involved in and what contribution did you make?

My small contribution  has been designing,engineering and the sale of hazardous waste handling systems for industrial purposes over the past 30 years.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Diane Merriam  First; Technologies do exist to address the problem of Global warming, problem is that the implementation of these fixes call for sacrifice and many, seemingly such as yourself, do not want to make to make the effort called for.

Left unaddressed the suffering will be far greater than the alternative of making the effort of dealing with it now.

"Models that haven't come close to being able to predict the present"? Have you been living under a rock?

Do some more homework for the sake of your children, it's not you that will suffer the brunt of global warming, it's the future generations.

Naysaying ignorance doesn't help anyone, as a matter of fact it just serves to compound the problem.

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

@Diane Merriam 

"Not up to scale" was the actual phrase used, as very many technologies in wind and solar are already in development and competitive production today.

It doesn't help our world to have the wealthiest corporations in history fighting all-out to keep us addicted to their monopolized and grossly subsidized fossil fuels at the risk of losing human civilization.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Gerard Van der Leun  "Blather"?

Scientific proof and observation that bears it out, "Blather"?

The Physics behind, "Global warming", "Blather"?

Overwhelming consensus among the world's top scientists, "Blather"?

Measurable, ever increasing  CO2 in the atmosphere, "Blather"?

Measurable and increasing holes in the Ozone layer, "Blather"?

Ice formations around the world melting at an unprecedented rate, "Blather"?

Rising water levels in the oceans, "Blather"?

Changing weather patterns around the world, "Blather"?

Storms of all types increasing in intensity, "Blather"?

Whole species facing extinction because of changes in their natural environment, "Blather"?

Increasing average temperatures over decades, "Blather"?

In your pics, you are looking through what appears to be a camera, might I suggest, open your eyes instead of expressing your, "Blather"?


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