RESEARCH

Extreme heat events may be 'locked in' because of past emissions -- World Bank chief

A dangerous amount of global warming has already been baked into the Earth's atmosphere, according to a sweeping new scientific assessment released by the World Bank that warns the world's most vulnerable countries are certain to suffer even if world leaders manage to broker a new international climate change agreement in 2015.

The study released yesterday finds that with current warming hovering at 0.8 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels and greenhouse gas emissions rising about 2.5 percent annually, the 2-degree "guardrail" beyond which scientists say the climate change impacts will be catastrophic and irreversible will be breached by midcentury.

"The findings are alarming," said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. "Even with ambitious mitigation, warming close to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels is locked in. And that means climate change impacts such as extreme heat events may now be simply unavoidable."

For Latin America, that means massive glacier loss in the Andes, 90 percent of which will disappear in a 2-degree world. In the Middle East, crop yields in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Libya will decrease as much as 30 percent. And in Central Asia, there could be an increased risk of dengue fever in the Balkans.

If global average temperatures continue to rise past the 2-degree line, Kim warned, "heat waves and other weather extremes we call once-in-a-century events would become the new normal, a frightening world of increased instability."

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The report comes as diplomats from more than 200 countries prepare to descend on Lima, Peru, for an annual round of U.N. climate change negotiations. The talks during the next two weeks will be aimed at brokering a new international deal to be signed in Paris in 2015. The Paris agreement is expected to include mitigation action from all major emitting nations, but those cuts won't go into effect until 2020.

Activists hope the World Bank report, along with a recent U.N. study finding the world will likely emit between 14 billion and 17 billion metric tons more carbon dioxide than it should in order to limit average temperature rise to 2 degrees, will highlight the urgency of taking more ambitious near-term action.

"The World Bank's report highlights that climate change is not just a threat far in the future but is already endangering the world's poor and the ability for the planet to feed us all. The report should give negotiators heading to Lima in December for the next round of climate talks renewed urgency to make clear progress towards a deal," Nicolas Mombrial of Oxfam International said in a statement.

'Dangerous climate impacts' are beginning

"The dangerous climate impacts communities are already feeling should drive countries to step up efforts to protect and prepare their citizens for a warmer world. The analysis shows that no country can sit back and ignore the risks," he said.

The report focuses on three regions: Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Central Asia. All are at risk for heat extremes and, according to the study, have already experienced record-breaking temperatures with more frequency. The researchers found that the risk of reduced crop yields in each region rises significantly once global average temperatures rise above 1.5 C, a loss that will reverberate in markets worldwide.

Kim noted that many of the worst impacts detailed in the report -- maize yields in Brazil declining up to 70 percent, rising sea levels submerging Caribbean islands, 3.6 million people in Egypt affected by coastal flooding -- can be avoided by holding global warming below 2 degrees. But that, he said, will require significant global leadership.

He praised President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping for pledging joint U.S.-China mitigation action. But, he said, "the actions of the two alone, of course, are not enough. ... This is now a challenge to all the other governments of the world."

In the meantime, Kim warned that much of the world is already "condemned" to worrisome levels of warming during the next two decades that he said has "serious consequences for development budgets in institutions like the World Bank group, where our investments, support and advice must now be taken in a world shaped by a rapidly changing climate."

Yet for the World Bank, that still doesn't mean ending coal lending entirely. Kim and World Bank Special Envoy for Climate Change Rachel Kyte noted that the bank has not financed a coal-fired power plant in five years. But they also stressed that while coal will only be an option in the world's poorest countries that have no other affordable baseload power options, there will still be "difficult trade-offs."

"I think the direction of travel is clear," said Kyte. "The speed with which we're moving in that direction is clear, as well, and that's what we're going to continue to do. Will there be case-by-case examples where we will have to really look hard at what options are? Yes, of course. So, you know, I'm not going to say never, right? But we've been around this mulberry bush before."

Twitter: @LFFriedman | Email: lfriedman@eenews.net

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