The world must confine the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or it will face an apocalyptic situation where climate change is no longer within our control. That was the message delivered this week by a group of Nobel laureates meeting in London.
How can this be accomplished? By ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2015 and then drop to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
For starters, developed countries would need to cut their emissions 25-40 percent by 2020.
"If this is delayed by even five years and emissions peak in 2020, we will need to reduce emissions by 6 percent annually thereafter," John Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research in Germany, which organized the gathering, told Nature.
The St. James's Palace Nobel Laureate Memorandum was directed at nations taking part in the Copenhagen climate talks. Unfortunately, it's yet another S.O.S. sent by leading scientists that's destined to fall on deaf years.
Here's where things stand:
The 27-nation EU bloc, which accounts for about 14 percent of global emissions, has agreed to a 20 percent emissions cut by 2020 from 1990 levels. It will up that commitment to 30 percent by 2020 if other wealthy nations make comparable efforts. Not likely.
The ACES climate bill wending its way through the U.S. Congress targets a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels by 2020. That would be about 4 percent below 1990 levels, according to figures from the World Resources Institute.
China, the world's leading carbon polluter, has refused hard caps altogether, although it may budge if the U.S. delivers a strong commitment to tougher targets. Problem is, China's public position is for the developed world to meet a politically untenable 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.
On top of emissions cuts, the Nobel laureates urged carbon pricing across much of the global economy, financial support for adaptation and emergency measures to prevent deforestation. All of their recommendations are rooted in peer-reviewed science.
"The robust scientific process, by which this evidence has been gathered, should be used as a clear mandate to accelerate the actions that need to be taken. Political leaders cannot possibly ask for a more robust, evidence-based call for action," the memorandum says.
Indeed, the evidence keeps piling up to an unavoidable fact. Emissions growth is spiraling out of control.
Have a look at what's come to light just this month:
Greenhouse gas emissions skyrocketed 15 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to new numbers from the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research or "EDGAR." For context, the rate of emissions growth was just 3 percent for the period 1990-1995 and 6 percent between 1995 and 2000.
The future looks even worse. Without a global treaty, carbon emissions will surge nearly 39 percent by 2030, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted this week.
And in another new report, MIT researchers revealed that Earth's median surface temperature could rise 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. That makes the problem about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago, and it could be even worse than that. Under the current do-nothing scenario, the researchers claim there is a less than 1 percent chance of under 3 degree Celsius warming by century's end. Keep in mind, the 2 degree threshold is now considered a dangerous level by some experts.
"There's no way the world can or should take these risks," said study co-author Ronald Prinn.
Economic losses from unchecked climate change already amount to over $160 billion annually. That number is expected to rise to $345 billion each year by 2030, according to a new report commissioned by the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum. The human losses are soaring, too. The study reveals that climate change kills about 315,000 people a year through hunger, sickness and weather disasters. By 2030, that figure will to climb to half a million or higher.
The world's poorest are bearing more than nine-tenths of that economic and human burden. But richer nations, most notably the U.S., will not be spared. According to new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Greenland's ice is melting at a rate of 7 percent a year. If that continues, sea levels off the northeast U.S. coast could rise this century by 12 to 20 inches more than other coastal areas this century.
Once again, this is a far bleaker assessment than previous research.
On Monday, June 1 – at a time when the "no-policy projections" look worse than ever – the next round of climate talks will kick off in Bonn, Germany. There, policymakers will start whittling down the final negotiating text for a new global climate deal that is being called the most important treaty the world has ever negotiated.
Failing is not an option.
As the Nobel laureates wrote:
"We know what needs to be done. We cannot wait until it is too late. We cannot wait until what we value most is lost."