40 Years After First Earth Day – Looking at where we need to be internationally on global warming in another 40 years

Today celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day and later this week there will be a rally in the U.S. on global warming pollution to try to push the U.S. Senate over the finish line in passing a comprehensive climate and energy bill this year.  And while Earth Day started in the U.S. it is now celebrated in 190 countries and by over a billion people.  And no issue is more compelling for the 6.8 billion people on the planet than addressing global warming – an issue that confronts every aspect of the future of the planet and the people that live on it.  

As my colleague pointed out this Earth Day we need a clean energy revolution that creates 2 million jobs, cuts 2 billion tons, and saves 2 trillion dollars in the U.S.  And I would add we need a global clean energy and deforestation revolution.  We need to take the global steps necessary to put the world on a path to solving global warming.  The agreement reached in Copenhagen provided some solid building blocks for that revolution (as I’ve discussed here), but 40 years from now (in 2050) we clearly need much more if we are to address global warming.  So where do we need to be 40 years from this historic Earth Day?

Here is one example of a 2050 world where we are on a path to holding global temperatures to less than 2°C (3.6 °F) – a goal affirmed by over 117 countries in the Copenhagen Accord.  In 2050 global emissions would need to be somewhere around the green and purple lines.

This implies at least the following:

All major developed countries, including the US, need to have cut their emissions by at least 80%.  That means that the US will need to have passed a comprehensive climate and energy bill like the one passed by the House of Representatives (as my colleague discussed here).  And this legislation will need to have stood the test of time and be implemented effectively to meet these objectives without loopholes.  Europe will have had to meet its 20-30% cut in emissions from 1990 levels target in 2020 and put in place subsequent measures for the period beyond 2020.  Russia, Canada, Australia, Japan, and so on will have to put in place real policies in their domestic law to meet the commitment that they made at the G8 meeting last year to cut emissions to 80% by 2050 (and Canada clearly will have had to stop expanding tar sands way before then).  And these countries will need to really meet these emission reduction targets, not just commit/promise to and not take the necessary steps at home to achieve them.  

Major emerging and developing countries need to have embarked on a clean energy revolution while pulling billions of people out of poverty.  Much of the growth in emissions will occur in major emerging economies (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Indonesia) and much of the infrastructure that will drive that emissions growth is occurring as we speak or will occur in the very near future.  So these countries will need to pull billions of people out of poverty (1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day) while simultaneously avoiding the global warming emitting development path that the developed countries followed.  Critical to this transition will be the efforts by countries like China and India which are embarking on this transition at a rapid pace and have made strides towards this clean energy revolution (as I discussed here and my colleagues have discussed here and here).

Deforestation emissions need to be effectively reduced to zero.  Every second an area of rainforest the size of two football fields is lost to deforestation.  That is forest that won’t come back and the annual emissions associated with its loss is equivalent to the emissions of all the cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains, and boats in the world.  So every second that we don’t stem the loss of tropical forests, we are making our effort to solve global warming that much harder.  Luckily the world has recognized the importance of addressing this challenge and is finally focused on mobilizing the resources and political will to finally tackle it (as I discussed here).  But a big question mark remains in what the U.S. will do as the fate of key deforestation reduction provisions in the Senate climate bill is uncertain (as I discussed here).  Key countries like Brazil seem poised to show that it will be possible to dramatically decrease the loss of their forests by 2020 (as I discussed here) so there is hope on the horizon.    


My colleagues have pointed out the many environmental and health gains we have made in the U.S. during the past 40 years.  I wasn’t around for the first Earth Day, but have lived through a number of these successes and have benefited greatly.  I have 2 small children and so I often think about what things will be like for them in the future. 40 years from now will we have addressed the most critical environmental, economic, and security issue facing the world—global warming?  I sure hope so as I would like to be able celebrate with them 40 years from now on the success of the international community to address global warming.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

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