OECD warns of catastrophic climate change


UNLESS DECISIVE action is taken by governments, global greenhouse emissions are set to double over the next 40 years, resulting in catastrophic climate change, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned yesterday.

Average global temperatures would rise by between three and six degrees Celsius – well above the “safe limit” of two degrees, which scientists have said is the maximum to sustain life as we know it.

A steeper rise in temperature would continue to alter rainfall patterns, melt glaciers, cause sea-level rise and intensify extreme weather events. It might also exceed critical “tipping points”, with “catastrophic and irreversible outcomes” for nature and society.

A preview of the OECD’s Environmental Outlook to 2050 paints this grim picture of the Earth in less than 40 years’ time if, it says, “we do not change our policies and behaviour to accommodate the nine billion people it will have to support in the coming decades”.

The outlook is due for publication next March. It warns that the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere could reach 685 parts per million (ppm) by 2050 – far in excess of the 450ppm scientists say is needed to have even a 50 per cent chance of achieving the two degree goal.

This is based on the OECD’s assumption that the mix of energy technologies “will not change significantly by 2050, with the share of fossil fuel-based energy remaining at 85 per cent”, unless there are new government policies to switch to renewable energy sources.

Echoing a report last week by the International Energy Agency, the OECD says 80 per cent of the projected emissions from the power generation sector in 2020 are “inevitable”, as they come from power plants that are already in place or are being built.

“The world is locking itself into high-carbon systems more strongly every year. Prematurely closing plants – at significant economic cost – would be the only way to reverse this ‘lock-in’,” the outlook says, adding that “delayed or only moderate action . . . would be more costly”.

In advance of the opening next Monday of this year’s UN climate change conference in Durban, OECD secretary general Angel Gurría said political courage would be needed to combat the “significant” environmental consequences and economic costs of climate change.

“Governments have to break out of their national mindsets and look at the global picture. They must speed up negotiations in Durban if we are to meet the internationally agreed goal to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees,” he said yesterday.

“It is still possible to change the grim prospects for 2050 if governments opt for a greener growth path,” the outlook says, but it warns that “the window of opportunity is closing fast”. One of the urgent actions it recommends is to “start pricing carbon in 2013”.

“Emissions must peak before 2020. The delayed-action scenario shows a short delay before global emission levels start reducing, implying that after 2025 there would need to be a rapid reversal of current trends to still achieve the 2 degree goal with an even chance.”

Calling for policies to “build a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy”, the OECD says a “prudent response” would involve “ambitious mitigation policy to reduce further climate change, and timely adaptation policies to limit damage from the impacts that are already inevitable”.

In the context of tight government budgets, it says finding least-cost solutions and engaging the private sector “will be critical to finance the transition” to a low-carbon economy.