The Emissions Quartet: Report Outlines Four Climate Actions Nations Can Take Now

Mixed bag. Carbon dioxide emissions were down in the United States and Europe in 2012, but up worldwide.

International Energy Agency/Redrawing The Energy-Climate Map

LONDON—Governments shouldn't wait for a proposed international climate deal to take hold in 2020—they can take four steps right away to curb carbon emissions, argues a new report from a global energy think tank. By implementing the quartet of policies by 2015, nations could buy "precious time while international climate negotiations continue," says economist Fatih Birol, the lead author of a report released here yesterday by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

At a U.N. meeting now under way in Bonn, envoys are discussing a climate change agreement that they hope to strike by 2015 and put into action in 2020. But average global temperatures will increase dramatically if nations just sit and wait until then, concludes the report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map. "[T]he path we are currently on is … likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C" by the end of the century, said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a statement. That's well above the 2° rise that many governments consider acceptable.

To hold any increase within that 2° range, IEA identifies four short-term remedies that should be implemented by 2015:

  • aggressive energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry, and transport;
  • limiting the use of coal-fired power stations;
  • curbing the release of methane into the atmosphere; and
  • reducing subsidies for fossil fuel consumption.

Together, these measures could reduce emissions from energy use by about 3.1 gigatons of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2020, the authors argue. And taking action sooner than later could save money: Investing in a low carbon economy now would cost about $1.5 trillion, the report finds, but putting off similar investments until 2020 could cost as much as $5 trillion.

The report notes that although energy-related carbon emissions have recently declined in the United States and Europe, they are increasing globally. Last year, IEA estimates that global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector rose 1.4% to a record level of 31.6 gigatons. China remains the number one emitter, responsible for about one-quarter of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. China's emissions jumped to a record 300 million tons in 2012, although the rate of increase was the lowest the country has seen in a decade.

Such numbers highlight "the urgency of a concerted international focus on reducing emissions," says John Topping, founder and chief executive of the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C. One high-profile target, he says, should be reducing emissions of tiny soot particles, known as black carbon, that don't last long in the atmosphere but have an outsize impact on warming.