Stakes rise for climate summit

Stakes rise for climate summit
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Stakes are rising for an international climate summit in Paris this December that marks a key moment for the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a global deal. 

Research suggests that unless carbon emissions are dramatically cut, global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius — a level scientists warn will bring about worse effects of climate change.

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In fact, the International Energy Agency said that even with the carbon reduction plans released by the world’s largest economies, the path is “consistent with an average temperature increase of around 2.6 degrees Celsius by 2100 and 3.5 degrees Celsius after 2200.” 

Separately, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that carbon emissions are set to rise by 13 percent in 2040, despite trillions of dollars in new renewable energy investment around the world.

Obama administration officials and environmental groups insist they’re not worried about that right now.

While the research is “very concerning,” according to Earthjustice staff attorney Erika Rosenthal, it’s not unexpected, and not enough for her or other major environmentalists to call for an immediate ramp up of climate-friendly policies.

“Do we need more? Absolutely. Is what’s on the table thus far … not enough? Absolutely. Is that frightening? Absolutely,” Rosenthal said. “But that said, you have to take the first step, and the first step is often the hardest, and it truly is the most critical.”

The Paris talks are important to Obama, who has put together an aggressive set of domestic environmental policies to spur federal action on climate change. 

The United Nations hopes to reach an international framework for cutting carbon emissions this year. While the world’s biggest emitters — including the U.S. and, critically, China — are on board, past efforts to reach climate accords have failed, primarily a landmark conference in Copenhagen in 2009.    

Scientists say — and policy-makers have accepted — that the focus should be on keeping the Earth from warning more than 2 degrees Celsius above current levels or risk the rising sea levels, extreme weather and public health impacts that would come with global warming.  

Ahead of the climate talks, United States has proposed cutting emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, relative to 2005 levels. The European Union has said it could reduce emissions by 40 percent over 1990 levels by 2030, and China says it hopes to peak its emissions before then.

Green groups say those goals could fall short of keeping the 2-degree increase at bay, but could lead the private sector to invest more in clean energy technology for fear of running afoul of tougher government policies.

“What we really need, more than anything else out of Paris, is that clear, credible, consistent policy signal to the markets that governments around the world are serious,” Rosenthal said.

“We may all wish that they had acted earlier and faster, and certainly our kids and grandkids will wish that in a very serious way, but they’re on that path,” she said.

John Coequyt, the director of the Sierra Club’s federal and international climate campaign, echoed those comments. 

“There’s sort of no way, at this point in time, that we could establish an outcome that assures we could achieve what we need to achieve,” he said. “That said, it’s also going to be the case that what countries do needs to continue to accelerate if we are going to solve this problem.”

The Obama administration also sees the Paris summit as a first step.

Asked about the 2-degree target last month, Obama energy and climate change adviser Brian Deese said pre-Paris emissions goals are a “a clear commitment to taking the kind of long-term actions that will be necessary to get to the place where science tells us that we need to get.”

“There is real value in getting the global community focused and galvanized around those targets and making progress towards those targets,” he said. “That is one of the most important and significant things that we can achieve this year.”

Environment America put out a study last week heralding the Obama administration’s work on climate issues, from the Clean Power Plan regulations on carbon emissions at power plants to pollution standards for trucks.

The report did, however, recommend the U.S. “deepen commitments to reduce global warming pollution” to meet the 2-degree mark. But Anna Aurilio, the director of Environment America’s Washington, D.C. office, said that doesn’t necessarily need to happen before the Paris talks. 

Instead, she said, regulators should focus on doing what they can right now: implementing the Clean Power Plan “with gusto,” or issuing new emissions regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Greens’ longer-term, harder-sell goals — 100 percent clean electricity, an all-renewable fleet of vehicles — should come next, but they won’t happen right away. 

A Paris climate deal, Aurilio said, is “a good down-payment and a path forward to help us get to where we need to go.”

“It’s progress in a way that I haven’t seen progress before,” she said. “At the risk of sounding like a relentless optimist, I’m feeling pretty optimistic right now.”

—Timothy Cama contributed to this report.