Climate challenge


WHEN SUCH moderate multinational institutions as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) follow each other in quick succession with grim warnings that the world is heading for catastrophic climate change if it stays on a “business-as-usual” path, governments and policymakers everywhere must not merely sit up and take notice, but make a real effort to start reversing the current worrying trends.

And they can begin that process in Durban on Monday next when the United Nations 17th Conference of the Parties to its Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes for a two-week session in an effort to find the basis for a new, legally binding international agreement to combat global warming after the Kyoto Protocol runs out next year.

Neither the OECD nor the IEA pulled any punches in their assessments of the perils facing humanity. With global greenhouse gas emissions set to double over the next four decades – in other words, within the lifetime of today’s children – average global temperatures would rise by between 3 and 6 degrees Celsius – well above the “safe limit” of 2 degrees, which scientists have said is the maximum to sustain life as we know it. And these steeper increases in temperatures would melt glaciers, cause sea-level rise and intensify extreme weather events. The Earth’s natural systems might also exceed critical “tipping points”, with “catastrophic and irreversible outcomes” for nature and society that would be immeasurably more severe than the consequences of the current period of economic recession and austerity.

Even against the backdrop of recession, an all-time record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere last year, representing a rise of more than 5 per cent on the figure for 2009. And the IEA, in its World Energy Outlook, warned that “without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system” because of the number of power plants fired by fossil fuels (particularly coal) that are currently in operation, under construction or still being planned worldwide. There is broad consensus between the two agencies that global emissions must peak no later than 2020 if we are to have any chance of achieving the 2 degrees warming limit. The challenge facing world leaders is monumental, which is all the more reason that no time must be wasted in Durban in seeking the pathway towards a low-carbon economy.