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Climate change: Our generation's urgent challenge

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It's amazing how quickly things can change, often for the better. There was a time in living memory when we used typewriters to generate copy, the "web" was something that spiders made, people smoked in workplaces and very few buckled up when driving. There was also a time when world leaders summoned the courage and ingenuity required to solve big challenges, such as eradicating polio and reducing acid rain.

This generation confronts a greater threat than ones previously faced. We must transition to a clean energy economy as quickly as possible because the fossil fuels we extract and burn are rapidly altering the chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans, undermining the biosphere that sustains life.

This call to rapidly decarbonise our economies is articulated in the third Working Group report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on April 13.

According to the report, greenhouse gas emissions grew almost twice as rapidly over the years 2000 - 2010 than in each of the previous three decades. Without additional efforts to reduce carbon emissions, global mean temperatures are projected to rise between 3.7 and 4.80 Celsius by the end of this century. Such a change in global temperature would make large regions uninhabitable and severely compromise our oceans.  

Clearly, humanity is headed in the wrong direction.

There is hope to change course, according to the report, but only if we act now. Government climate negotiators agree that the global temperature increase must be below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic climate change. Small island communities, threatened with disappearance under rising seas, advocate a target of 1.50 C. To put this in perspective, the world has already warmed by almost one degree since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The oceans have absorbed some of the carbon emissions, increasing their acidity by 30 percent, which threatens many marine species.

Keeping warming under the agreed target requires immediate action, including rapid deployment of all clean energy technologies and major reduction of energy demand, according to the report. Any delay will reduce the likelihood of achieving even the two-degree goal and increase the cost of mitigation measures, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We have no time to waste. According to the latest findings, emissions must fall by between 40 and 70 percent by 2050, below 2010 levels, and then be near zero by 2100 if we are to keep within two degrees. These targets are more ambitious than the reductions that nations pledged at Copenhagen in 2009.

Currently Canada is on track to meet only two-thirds of the now inadequate Copenhagen target. This is due to tar sands development.

While Canada focuses on building new infrastructure, such as pipelines, to accommodate the tar sands, the world is asked to decarbonise electricity production by removing high carbon-based sources from the mix, and dramatically improving efficiencies in buildings and transportation.

Happily, the public and some private firms are responding to this challenge. New innovations in renewable energy sources are improving performance and lowering costs. Their widespread deployment still requires government support, however.

The IPCC describes how taxation measures, whether carbon taxes or fuel taxes, have been successful in various jurisdictions in reducing emissions without penalizing people living on low incomes. And, provinces, states and municipalities are taking measures to reduce emissions despite inadequate action by national governments, as is the case in Canada.

Given the urgency of the problem, national governments must step up their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the official timetable set out under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, national governments are expected to decide at a conference in Paris late in 2015 on greenhouse gas reduction measures that would only take effect in 2020, which will be too late.

Accordingly, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is organizing a climate summit in New York in September 2014 to generate agreements on action. Government heads are expected to attend. It is imperative that Canada be among them.

Previous generations rose to the challenges that faced them, and we have seen great technological advancements within just 20 years. We are fully capable of transitioning away from our reliance on fossil fuels, and investing in clean technology innovations that will diversify our economy, create quality jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The time to act is now.

John Dillon is Ecological Economy Program Coordinator with KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

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