Stern Warning: 5 Years Left Before Irreversible Climate Change

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a stern report today, warning the world has five years before it locks in irreversible climate change.

"There is still time to act, but the window of opportunity is closing," warns the IEA in its 2011 World Energy Outlook. 

There must be a "bold change of policy direction or the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system."

IEA released the report in advance of the November 28 World Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, where once again there is little optimism of achieving an international, binding climate treaty that includes all nations.

"If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door will be closed forever," IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol warns today.

"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," says IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.

It’s all been said before: governments have yet to seriously commit to the level of carbon reductions necessary to hold off catastrophic climate change. They are working around the periphery, making changes that are too small and too slow, and are still arguing about an international treaty, rather than treating the situation as the emergency that it is.

"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," says Fatih Birol, IEA Chief Economist.

If the world adopts an energy path that keeps global temperature rise no higher than 2°C, as has been agreed on at past Climate Change Summits, four-fifths of all energy-related CO2 emissions allowed to 2035 is already locked-in – in existing power stations, buildings and factories.

That’s bad enough, but the world is not currently on that  energy path. Instead, IEA forecasts energy demand will grow by a third through 2035 – fossil fuel use will drop from 81% today to 75% in 2035, and renewables will rise from 13% today to 18% in 2035. 

For renewables to provide 18% of the world’s energy,  subsidies must rise from $64 billion in 2010 to $250 billion in 2035, a number that’s still far short of the $409 billion in fossil fuel subsidies handed out in 2010. But even that level of support for renewables can’t be counted on in this age of fiscal austerity.

Delaying action is a false choice, IEA says. For every $1 we postpone spending on clean energy before 2020, it will cost an additional $4.30 after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

With an about-face in world government policies, coal, oil and natural gas will continue to rule, and demand will rise significantly from emerging economies. Much of the increased demand for oil will be for transportation – with the world reaching 1.7 billion vehicles in 2030. Hybrid and electric vehicles will advance but not anywhere near the pace needed to fully penetrate markets.

Even if strong new policies are implemented rapidly, IEA believes temperatures will rise 3.5°C. If they are not implemented, however, IEA forecasts the same worst case scenario scientists have been warning us about for years – global temperature rise of 6°C – which means an unliveable planet.

2011: Year of Extremes

Historic floods, droughts and hurricanes are becoming the new "normal" around the world, but let’s just look at the US over the past year.

Severe snowstorms, massive spring floods, oppressive heat waves and hurricane flooding could drive the 2011 total to a record-breaking 14 weather disasters, costing $53 billion, according to Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist at Weather Underground.

2011 was the hottest summer since the Dust Bowl, with 42 states clocking above-normal temperatures and four states breaking all-time records. Extreme heat drives diseases, health issues and deaths, and reduces yields for vital crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton.

In the 1950s, record high temperatures were just as likely to occur as record cold temperatures, but over the last decade, the US has set twice as many record highs as record lows.

According to the last National Climate Assessment, staying on a high emissions path is likely to make extreme heat events that occurred just once every 20 years in the past happen every two years, if not every single year, throughout the country by the end of the century. 

Heavy Flooding, Drought

Record flooding of the Missouri river cost over $2 billion as 11,000 people were evacuated and thousands of acres of farmland were under water. Flooding in the Mississippi river cost $2 billion to $4 billion. 

According to NOAA, flash flooding and river flooding in the US cost $2.7 billion in property and crop damages each year over the past decade.

The costs for the historic drought – and resulting wildfires – in the Southern Plains and Southwest cost well over $9 billion in crop damage, livestock loss and property damage. Water shortages are negatively impacting plants’ and animals’ survival and resistance to disease – including fish that inhabit drying streams and lakes. It also reduces hydropower, a main source of electricity.

Global emissions of CO2 reached record highs in 2010 and now exceed the worst-case scenarios scientists analyzed in a landmark 2007 IPCC assessment.

On Nov. 18, the IPCC is slated to release a long-anticipated report examining the science linking climate change to certain types of extreme weather and steps governments can take to prepare for harder-hitting weather as the climate changes. 

See the full analysis by Union of Concerned Scientists:

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Comments on “Stern Warning: 5 Years Left Before Irreversible Climate Change”

  1. Thom Bohlen

    The political will of the global network of countries is not going to coalesce any time soon. What you reiterate above in detail has mostly been known now by the world’s scientific community since the Kyoto agreement decades ago, and yet, some are still debating the very existence of global warming and its causes. A critical mass of enlightened people from all walks of life must act within their own spheres of influence to sway the naysayers. In terms of earth’s timescale, 5 years is but a nano-second.


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