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// There is still time to avoid being locked into a high-carbon energy system - but not much
The world is facing "lock-in" to a high emissions curve: that is the stark warning from the International Energy Agency
Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration If we do not have an international agreement, in place by 2017, the door will be closed foreverTHE WORLD is losing the battle against climate change. Last year, the greenhouse gas emissions, blamed by scientists for causing global warming, increased by more than 5 per cent, despite all the efforts being made by many countries to contain them and even against the backdrop of the worst economic recession for decades.
Globally, a record 30.6 gigatonnes - 3,600,000,000 tonnes - of carbon dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere in 2010, compared to 29 gigatonnes during the previous year, according to the International Energy Agency, which provides its 28 member states with energy policy analysis, research and statistics.
The big jump in emissions is higher than even the "worst-case scenario" outlined by the UN'S Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just four years ago. If emissions continue rising at this rate, experts predict that average global temperatures would increase by a catastrophic four degrees by the end of this century.
Lord Nicholas Stern, author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, predicted dire consequences unless emissions were reined in. "Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict," he said last May.
"The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing," said John Reilly, co-director of MIT'S joint programme on the science and policy of global change. While economic growth had boosted the standard of living in poorer countries, "doing it with increasing reliance on coal is imperiling the world", he warned.
China and the US accounted for more than half of the increase in emissions recorded in 2010. But the figures show that EU member states and other developed countries that ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change have achieved their targets of cutting emissions to 8 per cent below 1990 levels.
The US signed the protocol but it was disowned in 2001 by then president George W Bush, who claimed it would damage the US economy, while China (as a developing country) was not required to meet mandatory targets under Kyoto. Since then, it has surpassed the US to become the world's number one carbon emitter.
China is still hugely reliant on coal as a primary energy source, and emissions from this sector rose by 8 per cent last year - indicating that coal-fired power stations are the biggest culprits for the overall increase. And with more electricity being generated from coal, the world is facing "lock-in" to a high emissions curve.
That was the stark warning issued earlier this month by the International Energy Agency. "Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system", its latest World Energy Outlook said. "There is still time to act, but the window of opportunity is closing." And it is closing fast.
Even with new policies favouring renewable energy sources, the agency warned that cumulative carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years would lead to a long-term increase of 3.5 degrees in global temperatures. "Were the new policies not implemented, we are on an even more dangerous track, to an increase of six degrees."
At the UN'S chaotic Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009, world leaders pledged to "enhance our long-term co-operative action [in order to] prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system ... recognising the scientific view that the increase in global temperatures should be below two degrees Celsius".
That was a non-binding resolution, however. And "as each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the ‘lock-in' of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals", according to Dr Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency's outspoken Turkish-born chief economist.
"The door is closing," he 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 [to avoid catastrophic climate change]. If we do not have an international agreement, whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door will be closed forever."
If the world is to stay below two degrees of warming, which scientists regard as the safety limit, emissions must not go higher than 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The level has already reached some 390ppm, and the world's energy infrastructure is producing or consuming 80 per cent of the "carbon budget".
This means that there is an ever-narrowing gap in which to switch the global economy to a low-carbon trajectory. If we continue to build high-carbon energy installations, such as coal-fired power plants, the entire "carbon budget" could be taken up by our energy and industrial infrastructure by 2017, leaving no further room for manoeuvre.
World Energy Outlook 2011 spells out what's at stake in economic terms. "Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 [€0.74] of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 [€3.18] would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions," it warns.
"Growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades, but we cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy," said former Dutch minister of economic affairs Maria van der Hoeven, who took over as the International Energy Agency's executive director on September 1st last.
"Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient low-carbon technologies. The Fukushima nuclear accident, the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and a sharp rebound in energy demand in 2010 which pushed CO emissions to a record high, highlight the urgency and the scale of the challenge."
The International Energy Agency's most optimistic "new policies" scenario assumes that recent government commitments are implemented "in a cautious manner", primary energy demand increases by one-third between 2010 and 2035, with 90 per cent of this growth in NON-OECD economies and China consuming nearly 70 per cent more energy than the US by then.
The share of fossil fuels in global primary energy consumption would fall from 81 per cent today to 75 per cent in 2035, while renewables increase from 13 per cent to 18 per cent - underpinned by a four-fold increase in subsidies to $250 billion (€184.7 billion). If it seems a lot, fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $409 billion (€302 billion) last year.
Although short-term pressures on oil markets are easing with the economic slowdown and the expected return of Libyan supplies, it expects average oil prices to remain high, reaching $120 (€88.6) per barrel (in 2010 prices) by 2035.
However, if investment in this region runs one-third lower than the $100 billion (€73.88 billion) per year required between now and 2015, it warns that consumers "could face a near-term rise in the oil price to $150 [€110.8] per barrel". Nonetheless, it expects global oil demand to rise from 87 million barrels per day to 99 million in 2035.
All of the net growth is likely to come from the transport sector in emerging economies, such as China and India, doubling the world's passenger vehicle fleet to almost 1.7 billion in 2035. "Alternative technologies, such as hybrid and electric vehicles . . . continue to advance, but they take time to penetrate markets", the International Energy Agency says. It expects the use of coal - which met almost half of the increase in global energy demand over the last decade - to rise 65 per cent by 2035, with China accounting for almost half of global demand. More efficient power plants and still somewhat uncertain carbon capture and storage technology could also boost prospects for coal.
The pro-nuclear International Energy Agency acknowledges the Fukushima disaster in Japan has "raised questions about the future role of nuclear power". Even so, its "new policies" scenario assumes nuclear output would rise by over 70 per cent by 2035, slightly less than projected last year.
A special "low nuclear" scenario examines what would happen if the anticipated contribution of nuclear to future energy supply were to be halved. "While providing a boost to renewables, such a slowdown would increase import bills, heighten energy security concerns and make it harder and more expensive to combat climate change."
The future for natural gas is more certain: its share in the energy mix is expected to continue rising, with gas use almost catching up with coal consumption, suggesting that the world is entering a "golden age of gas". And one of the main beneficiaries would be Russia - although it will need to finance a new generation of higher-cost gas fields.
Another challenge facing Russia is to improve its energy efficiency to levels of comparable advanced countries. According to the International Energy Agency, "it could reduce its primary energy use by almost one-third, an amount similar to the consumption of the United Kingdom". It would remain an important supplier of gas to Europe and, increasingly, to Asia.
"Peak oil" has been glossed over in the agency's latest outlook. But Dr Birol said last April that oil production probably peaked in 2006. "The existing [oil] fields are declining so sharply that in order to stay where we are in terms of production levels in the next 25 years, we have to find and develop four new Saudi Arabias."
29 Nov 2011
The Irish Times
FRANK MCDONALD Environment Editor