World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, warns report

November 9, 2011

SOURCE: The Guardian

If the worlds high-carbon energy infrastructure is not rapidly changed, we will lose for ever the chance to avoid dangerous climate change, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

 

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

A stark warning

The world is likely to build so many new fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be "lost for ever", according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.

Anything built from now on that produces carbon will continue to do so for decades to come, and this "lock-in" effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change, the world's foremost authority on energy economics has found. If this infrastructure is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous.

"The door is closing," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), told the Guardian. "I am very worried – if we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.

Time is running out

Every month now counts: if the world is to stay below 2C of warming, which scientists regard as the limit of safety, then emissions must be held to no more than 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the level is currently around 390ppm. But the world's existing infrastructure is already producing 80% of that "carbon budget", according to a new analysis by the IEA, published on Wednesday. This gives an ever-narrowing gap in which to reform the global economy on to a low-carbon footing.

If current trends continue, and we go on building high-carbon energy generation, then by 2015 at least 90% of the available "carbon budget" will be swallowed up by our energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, there will be no room for manoeuvre at all – the whole of the "carbon budget" will be spoken for, according to the IEA's calculations.

An international agreement is urgently needed

Birol's warning comes at a crucial moment in international negotiations on climate change, as governments gear up for the next fortnight of talks in Durban, South Africa, from late November. "If we do not have an international agreement, whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding temperatures to 2C of warming] will be closed forever," said Birol.

But governments around the world are preparing to postpone yet again a speedy conclusion to the negotiations. Originally, the aim was to agree a successor to the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the only binding international agreement on emissions, after its current provisions expire in 2012. But after years of setbacks, an increasing number of countries – including the UK, Japan and Russia – now favour postponing the talks for several years.

Both Russia and Japan have spoken in recent weeks of aiming for an agreement in 2018 or 2020, and the UK has supported this move. Greg Barker, the UK's climate change minister, told a meeting: "We need China, the US especially, the rest of the Basic countries [Brazil, South Africa, India and China] to agree. If we can get this by 2015 we could have an agreement ready to click in by 2020."

Birol said this would clearly be too late. "I think it's very important to have a sense of urgency – our analysis shows [what happens] if you do not change investment patterns, which can only happen as a result of an international agreement."

Nor is this a problem of the developing world, as some commentators have sought to frame it. In the UK, Europe and the US, there are multiple plans for new fossil-fuelled power stations that would contribute significantly to global emissions over the coming decades.

Emissions continue to rise

The Guardian revealed in May an IEA analysis finding emissions had risen by a record amount in 2010 despite the worst recession for 80 years. Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel, a rise of 1.6Gt on the previous year. At the time, Birol told the Guardian that constraining global warming to moderate levels would be "only a nice utopia" unless drastic action was taken.

Today's research adds to that finding, by showing in detail how current choices on building new energy and industrial infrastructure are likely to commit the world to much higher emissions for the next few decades, blowing apart hopes of containing the problem to manageable levels.

The IEA's data is regarded as the gold standard in emissions and energy, and it is widely regarded as one of the most conservative in outlook – making today's warning all the more stark.

The central problem is that most of the industrial infrastructure already in existence around the world – the fossil-fuelled power stations, the emissions-spewing factories, the inefficient transport and buildings – are already contributing to the current high level of emissions, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Carbon dioxide, once released into the atmosphere, stays there and continues to have a warming effect for about a century, and industrial infrastructure is built to have a useful life of several decades at least.

Yet, despite intensifying warnings from scientists over the past two decades, the new infrastructure even now being built is constructed along the same lines as the old, which means that there is a "lock-in" effect – high-carbon infrastructure built today or in the next five years will contribute as much to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere as previous generations.

This "lock-in" effect is the single most important factor increasing the danger of runaway climate change, according to the IEA in its annual World Energy Outlook, published on Wednesday.

You can read the full article, published by the Guardian, on the Guardian website.