What we do today about climate change has consequences that will last a century or more. The part of that change that is due to greenhouse gas emissions is not reversible in the foreseeable future. The heat trapping gases we send into the atmosphere in 2008 will stay there until 2108 and beyond. We are therefore making choices today that will affect our own lives, but even more so the lives of our children and grandchildren. This makes climate change different and more difficult than other policy challenges.
Climate change is different from other problems facing humanity—and it challenges us to think differently at many levels. Above all, it challenges us to think about what it means to live as part of an ecologically interdependent human community. Ecological interdependence is not an abstract concept. We live today in a world that is divided at many levels. People are separated by vast gulfs in wealth and opportunity. In many regions, rival nationalisms are a source of conflict. All too often, religious, cultural and ethnic identity are treated as a source of division and difference from others. In the face of all these differences, climate change provides a potent reminder of the one thing that we share in common. It is called planet Earth. All nations and all people share the same atmosphere. And we only have one. Global warming is evidence that we are overloading the carrying capacity of the Earth’s atmosphere. Stocks of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere are accumulating at an unprecedented rate. Current concentrations have reached 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) exceeding the natural range of the last 650,000 years. In the course of the 21st Century, average global temperatures could increase by more than 5°C
To put that figure in context, it is equivalent to the change in temperature since the last ice age—an era in which much of Europe and North America was under more than one kilometre of ice. The threshold for dangerous climate change is an increase of around 2°C. This threshold broadly defines the point at which rapid reversals in human development and a drift towards irreversible ecological damage would become very difficult to avoid.
Behind the numbers and the measurement is a simple overwhelming fact. We are recklessly mismanaging our ecological interdependence. In effect, our generation is running up an unsustainable ecological debt that future generations will inherit. We are drawing down the stock of environmental capital of our children. Dangerous climate change will represent the adjustment to an unsustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions. Future generations are not the only constituency that will have to cope with a problem they did not create. The world’s poor will suffer the earliest and most damaging impacts. Rich nations and their citizens account for the overwhelming bulk of the greenhouse gases locked in the Earth’s atmosphere. But, poor countries and their citizens will pay the highest price for climate change.
Human health. Rich countries are already preparing public health systems to deal with future climate shocks, such as the 2003 European heatwave and more extreme summer and winter conditions. However, the greatest health impacts will be felt in developing countries because of high levels of poverty and the limited capacity of public health systems to respond. Major killer diseases could expand their coverage. For example, an additional 220–400 million people could be exposed to malaria—a disease that already claims around 1 million lives annually. Dengue fever is already in evidence at higher levels of elevation than has previously been the case, especially in Latin America and parts of East Asia. Climate change could further
expand the reach of the disease. None of these five separate drivers will operate in isolation. They will interact with wider social, economic and ecological processes that shape opportunities for human development. Inevitably, the precise mix of transmission mechanisms from climate change to human development will vary across and within countries. Large areas of uncertainty remain. What is certain is that dangerous climate change has the potential to deliver powerful systemic shocks to human development across a large group of countries. In contrast to economic shocks that affect growth or inflation, many of the human development impacts—lost opportunities for health and education, diminished productive potential, loss of vital ecological systems, for example—are likely to prove irreversible.
Avoiding dangerous climate change: strategies for mitigation
Avoiding the unprecedented threats posed by dangerous climate change will require an unparalleled collective exercise in international cooperation. Negotiations on emission limits for the post-2012 Kyoto Protocol commitment period can—and must—frame the global carbon budget. However, a sustainable global emissions pathway will only be meaningful if it is translated into practical national strategies—and national carbon budgets. Climate change mitigation is about transforming the way that we produce and use energy. And it is about living within the bounds of ecological sustainability. Setting credible targets linked to global mitigation goals is the starting point for the transition to a sustainable emissions pathway. These targets can provide a basis for carbon budgeting exercises that provide a link from the present to the future through a series of rolling plans. However, credible targets have to be backed by clear policies. The record to date in this area is not encouraging. Most developed countries are falling short of the targets set under the Kyoto Protocol: Canada is an extreme case in point. In some cases, ambitious ‘Kyoto-plus’ targets have been adopted. The European Union and the United Kingdom have both embraced such targets. For different reasons, they are both likely to fall far short of the goals set unless they move rapidly to put climate mitigation at the centre of energy policy reform. Two major OECD countries are not bound by Kyoto targets. Australia has opted for a wide-ranging voluntary initiative, which has produced mixed results. The United States does not have a federal target for reducing emissions. Instead, it has a ‘carbon-intensity’ reduction goal which measures efficiency. The problem is that efficiency gains have failed to prevent large aggregate increases in emissions. In the absence of federal targets, several United States’ states have set their own mitigation goals. California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 is a bold attempt to align greenhouse gas reduction targets with reformed energy policies. Setting ambitious targets for mitigation is an important first step. Translating targets into policies is politically more challenging. The starting point: putting a price on carbon emissions. Changed incentive structures are a vital condition for an accelerated transition to low-carbon growth. In an optimal scenario, the carbon price would be global. This is politically unrealistic in the short-run because the world lacks the required governance system. The more realistic option is for rich countries to develop carbon pricing structures. As these structures evolve, developing countries could be integrated over time as institutional conditions allow. There are two ways of putting a price on carbon. The first is to directly tax CO2 emissions. Importantly, carbon taxation does not imply an increase in the overall tax burden. The revenues can be used in a fiscally neutral way to support wider environmental tax reforms—for example, cutting taxes on labour and investment. Marginal taxation levels would require adjustment in the light of greenhouse gas emission trends. One approach, broadly consistent with our sustainable emissions pathway, would entail the introduction of taxation at a level of US$10–20/t CO2 in 2010, rising in annual increments of US$5–10/t CO2 towards a level of US$60–100/t CO2. Such an approach would provide investors and markets with a clear and predictable framework for planning future investments. And it would generate strong incentives for a low-carbon transition. The second route to carbon pricing is capand- trade. Under a cap-and-trade system, the government sets an overall emissions cap and issues tradable allowances that grant business the right to emit a set amount. Those who can reduce emissions more cheaply are able to sell allowances. One potential disadvantage of cap-andtrade is energy price instability. The potential advantage is environmental certainty: the cap itself is a quantitative ceiling applied to emissions. Given the urgency of achieving deep and early quantitative cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, well-designed cap-and-trade programmes have the potential to play a key role in mitigation.
As a generation who life in this era, we must participate to make this earth better, start with a simple thing that you can do at home.
Making a few small changes in your home and yard can lead to big reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and save money. Explore our list of nine simple steps you can take around the house and yard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
1. Change 5 lights
Change a light, and you help change the world. Replace the conventional bulbs in your 5 most frequently used light fixtures with bulbs that have the ENERGY STAR and you will help the environment while saving money on energy bills. If every household in the U.S. took this one simple action we would prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from nearly 10 million cars.
2. Look for ENERGY STAR qualified products
When buying new products, such as appliances for your home, get the features and performance you want AND help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Look for ENERGY STAR qualified products in more than 50 product categories, including lighting, home electronics, heating and cooling equipment and appliances.
3. Heat and cool smartly
Simple steps like cleaning air filters regularly and having your heating and cooling equipment tuned annually by a licensed contractor can save energy and increase comfort at home, and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When it's time to replace your old equipment, choose a high efficiency model, and make sure it is properly sized and installed.
4. Seal and insulate your home
Sealing air leaks and adding more insulation to your home is a great do-it-yourself project. The biggest leaks are usually found in the attic and basement. If you are planning to replace windows, choose ENERGY STAR qualified windows for better performance. Forced air ducts that run through unconditioned spaces are often big energy wasters. Seal and insulate any ducts in attics and crawlspaces to improve the efficiency of your home. Not sure where to begin? A home energy auditor can also help you find air leaks, areas with poor insulation, and evaluate the over-all energy efficiency of your home. By taking these steps, you can eliminate drafts, keep your home more comfortable year round, save energy that would otherwise be wasted, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
5. Use green power
Green power is environmentally friendly electricity that is generated from renewable energy sources such as wind and the sun. There are two ways to use green power: you can buy green power or you can modify your house to generate your own green power. Buying green power is easy, it offers a number of environmental and economic benefits over conventional electricity, including lower greenhouse gas emissions, and it helps increase clean energy supply. If you are interested, there are a number of steps you can take to create a greener home , including installing solar panels and researching incentives for renewable energy in your state .
6. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
If there is a recycling program in your community, recycle your newspapers, beverage containers, paper and other goods. Use products in containers that can be recycled and items that can be repaired or reused. In addition, support recycling markets by buying products made from recycled materials. Reducing, reusing, and recycling in your home helps conserve energy and reduces pollution and greenhouse gases from resource extraction, manufacturing, and disposal.
7. Be green in your yard
Use a push mower, which, unlike a gas or electric mower, consumes no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases. If you do use a power mower, make sure it is a mulching mower to reduce grass clippings. Composting your food and yard waste reduces the amount of garbage that you send to landfills and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Smart Landscaping can save energy, save you money and reduce your household’s greenhouse gas emissions.
8. Use water efficiently
Saving water around the home is simple. Municipal water systems require a lot of energy to purify and distribute water to households, and saving water, especially hot water, can lower greenhouse gas emissions. There are also simple actions you can take to save water: Be smart when irrigating your lawn or landscape; only water when needed and do it during the coolest part of the day, early morning is best. Turn the water off while shaving or brushing teeth. Do not use your toilet as a waste basket - water is wasted with each flush. And did you know a leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons of water per day? Repair all toilet and faucet leaks right away.
9. Spread the Word
Tell family and friends that energy efficiency is good for their homes and good for the environment because it lowers greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Tell 5 people and together we can help our homes help us all.