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Ailing planet, but the cure already exists

by Stephen Leahy

CO2 levels reach 400 ppm, but solutions to the climate crisis abound. What's stopping us? Leadership, or rather lack of it.


The planet's climate recently reached a new milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The last time the Earth saw similar levels of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) was three million years ago during the Pliocene era, where Arctic temperatures were 10 to 14 degrees centigrade higher and global temperatures were four degrees centigrade hotter.

Research stations in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia all broke the 400 ppm barrier for the first time this spring, scientists have reported in a new release at the beginning of June. A global average of 400 ppm up from the present 392 ppm is still some years off. If today's CO2 levels don't decline - or worse, increase - the planet will inevitably reach those warmer temperatures, but it won't take a thousand years. Without major cuts in fossil fuel emissions, a child born today could live in a plus-four-degree centigrade superheated world by their late middle age. Such temperatures will make much of the planet unlivable.

If today's CO2 levels don't decline - or worse, increase - the planet will inevitably reach those warmer temperatures, but it won't take a thousand years. Without major cuts in fossil fuel emissions, a child born today could live in a plus-four-degree C superheated world by their late middle age. In a four-degree warmer world, climate adaptation means "put your feet up and die" for many people in the world, said Chris West of the University of Oxford's UK Climate Impacts Program.

This week the International Energy Agency reported that the nations of the world's CO2 emissions increased 3.2% in 2011 compared to 2010. This is precisely the wrong direction: emissions need to decline three percent per year to have any hope of a stable climate. By 2050, in a world with more people, carbon emissions must be half of today's levels. Impossible? No. A number of different energy analyses show how it can be done.

Dutch energy consulting firm Ecofys published a technical study in 2010 called "The Energy Report" that demonstrates how the world could reach 100%  renewable energy by 2050. Greenpeace's plan is "Energy [R]evolution". Even the International Energy Agency has one: it's called the "450 Scenario". There is no lack of technical knowledge about how to cut emissions and still keep the lights on. Some countries have already started.

Germany, a modern industrialized country, generated more than 30 percent of its energy from solar power one bright sunny day last week. Instead of using 20 or more climate-wrecking coal plants, Germany used the energy from more than one million solar panels on houses, buildings, along sides of highways - even those ugly highway sound barriers have solar panels. Although hardly known for sunny weather, Germany has more solar panels than all the rest of the world combined. It gets four percent of its total annual electricity needs from solar. Germany could increase its solar output by a factor of five or 10, experts say, especially with recent drops in the cost of solar panels.

The difference in Germany is leadership. Hermann Scheer, a minister of economics in the German government, created the now famous feed-in tariff in 2000 that launched Germany's renewable energy revolution. The outspoken Scheer had to both champion and defend this policy for many years to prevent successive governments from gutting it. He died suddenly in 2010. Other German politicians, supported by environmental groups and the public, have continued to push for more.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her support for nuclear power following huge public protests following the catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants in 2011. Germany will close its 17 nuclear plants by 2022. Renewables and energy efficiency are to replace that lost energy under an ambitious plan called "Agora Energiewende". If successful, as much as 40 percent of Germany's energy will come from renewables by 2022.

German energy prices have risen and large power users, as well as the politically powerful energy sector, oppose Merkel's plan. The chancellor will need strong public support even though Germany's renewable energy sector now employs more people than its vaunted automobile industry.

Globally, the renewable energy sector now employs close to five million workers, more than doubling the number of jobs from 2006- 2010, according to a study released by the International Labor Organization, the ILO. The transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty, concluded the study, "Working towards sustainable development".

Only 10 to 15 industries are responsible for 70 to 80% of CO2 emissions in the industrialized countries, the report discovered. And those industries employ just 8 - 12% of the workforce. Even with policies forcing major reductions in emissions, only a fraction would lose their jobs. States ILO Director-General Juan Somavia:

"Environmental sustainability is not a job killer, as it is sometimes claimed. On the contrary, if properly managed, it can lead to more and better jobs, poverty reduction and social inclusion."


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