WASHINGTON — Emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are growing at such a rate that the world will likely exceed a safe limit in average global temperatures by the end of the century and veer into a higher temperature zone that would profoundly damage economic growth and most other aspects of life, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
Emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, need to stay below certain levels so that they do not push average global temperatures higher than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists and policymakers have warned. Average temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 150 years or so, as mass industrialization spurred the increased combustion of fossil fuels.
The IEA's Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map reported that carbon dioxide emissions grew at a rate of 1.4 percent in 2012, reaching a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes released into the atmosphere. On this current path, the world's average temperatures are on track to increase between 3.6 degrees Celsius to 5.3 degrees Celsius, or 6.48 degrees Fahrenheit to 9.54 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century, said the IEA, an independent research group established by the world's most industrialized nations.
"Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities," said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven. "But the problem is not going away — quite the opposite."
Soaring temperatures would have profound implications for water supplies, electricity production, agriculture and public health. At the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, participating countries, including the United States, agreed to take steps to prevent average global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. But the agreement was not legally binding, and worldwide emissions have increased.
Emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen in the United States recently to levels not seen since the mid 1990s, largely due to a natural gas boom that has prompted a shift in power generation away from coal. The IEA report noted that "China experienced the largest growth in CO2 emissions (300 megatonnes), but the increase was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade," driven in part by the greater deployment of renewable energy.
The IEA recommended phasing out subsidies to fossil fuel industries. It called for eliminating leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane at oil and natural gas wells.