The world is starting to get serious about climate change. This is happening for one major reason: leadership.
President Obama’s announcement this week of a broad set of actions to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are changing our climate was very welcome. His plan, largely based on executive orders, will cut carbon pollution in the United States, prepare the country for the rising number of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts, invest more in clean-energy sources and help lead international efforts to combat climate change and manage its effects.
These steps must be seen in the context of growing mobilization on climate change worldwide because the United States is one part of a larger puzzle. Obama is joining the leaders of some of the largest carbon emitters — China, India and the European Union — in committing to reduce harmful emissions. The world can now see the potential for a global alignment of political leaders with substantial power to stop the dangerous warming of our planet.
Yet leaders around the world must propose even more far-reaching solutions and deliver results.
I think they can. But they don’t have much time.
They know there’s no substitute for aggressive national targets to reduce emissions.
Today, the burden of emissions reductions lies with a few large economies, including the United States, China, India and the European Union. In particular, the moves by the United States and other big emitters to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants are an important step forward.
And yet even if the global community’s pledges on greenhouse gases are fully met, the world remains on a trajectory to warm more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
That’s barreling down a reckless path. Last week, the World Bank Group published a scientific report on the effects of climate change. One part of the assessment looked at a rise in temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which we could experience in the next 20 to 30 years. (The world is already at 0.8 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Era levels.) Soon, our forecasts showed, a world 2 degrees Celsius warmer would have dire consequences: Forty percent of the land used to grow maize in Africa could no longer support the crop; parts of major cities in South Asia, including Bangkok, could be underwater; and the fish stocks in parts of Southeast Asia could decline by 50 percent.
The world’s leaders should be doing all they can now to avoid a 2-degree-Celsius warmer world. That calls for far more ambitious action.
As President Obama pointed out, one of the quickest steps is to cut short-lived climate pollutants such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), methane and black carbon from sources that include air-conditioning systems, urban landfills, livestock farming, wood burning and diesel engines.
Just a few weeks ago, China and the United States agreed to phase down production and consumption of HFCs. This could cut two years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, slowing the arrival of a warmer world.
But leadership on climate has to happen at every level. In the United States, states and cities have been taking the lead. California, for instance, has started by aggressively reducing diesel emissions. These emissions have a warming impact 460 to 1,500 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
More broadly, the leaders of the nations that emit the most pollutants need to move ahead in five critical areas. The first two will require concerted global agreement: setting a price on carbon, which can redirect finances to low-carbon growth, and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption. Currently, governments hand out more than a trillion dollars annually in fossil fuel subsidies that could instead be invested in transitioning to sustainable energies.
World leaders need to push for breakthroughs on these difficult issues, but that’s no excuse to sit still in the meantime. The World Bank Group is working with partners right now on three other areas: building cleaner cities; developing climate-smart agriculture; and investing in energy efficiency and sustainable energy sources. Moving ahead, we at the bank will be looking at everything we do through a climate lens.
Enormous political and technical challenges remain. But the direction is clear. President Obama injected a new sense of hope in the fight against climate change globally. The global leaders’ plans in front of us reflect a growing commitment to collaborate. Our well-being and that of future generations, as well as the world’s economic security, are at stake. The opportunity for action on climate change is still — for a short time — within our grasp.
Jim Yong Kim is president of the World Bank Group.