Despite efforts to mitigate climate change, we recently passed a grim milestone with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topping 400 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This is uncharted territory in the history of humans.
While it does not represent a tipping point per se, that milestone is symbolic of our failure to respond adequately, and to fulfil our own national and international pledges to limit average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius over the long term.
If we continue with business as usual, that rise could be 5.3 degrees Celsius, with potentially disastrous implications in terms of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and the huge economic and social costs that these can bring.
In short, we are drifting off-track, and global negotiations are not expected to yield agreement before 2015, and to be enforced after 2020. Amid concerns over global economic pressures, climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.
But the problem is not going away. Quite the opposite. Climate change must remain a permanent and prominent item on the policy agenda.
By 2020, global energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions are projected to be nearly 4 gigatonnes higher than a level consistent with attaining the 2 degrees Celsius target. This level of excess emissions in 2020, just seven years from now, is more than the emissions of Europe today.
And while developed countries contributed the most to energy-related emissions historically, developing countries account for 60% of these emissions today.
China, the world largest emitter, contributed most to the growth in global emissions in 2012, but the increase was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade as a result of efforts in renewables deployment and efficiency gains.
Europe has seen falling emissions due to economic contraction and increasing renewables use, while emissions in the US fell thanks to coal-to-gas switching. But Japan‘s emissions have risen due to a reduction in nuclear power.
So this is a problem that we must tackle together. Delaying stronger climate action to 2020 would come at a cost to the energy sector: 1.5 trillion US dollars in low-carbon investments would be avoided before 2020, but 5 trillion US dollars in additional investments would be required thereafter to get the world back on track.
The question is not whether we can afford the necessary investments given the current economic climate. The fact is we simply cannot afford to delay.