Grim prediction for mid-century environment unless politicians act now

People can expect a catastrophic 50% global increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and worsening air pollution by 2050 unless politicians rapidly work together to find sustainable growth policies, a new report by the OECD has found.

The Organisation for European Economic Co-operation report also noted that world energy demand in less than four decades could be 80% higher and still 85% reliant on fossil fuel-based energy unless radically new development paths are chosen.

The OECD warned governments take action now to prevent irreversible environmental damage even as they struggle with the ongoing financial crisis and high unemployment.

“Greener sources of growth can help governments today as they tackle these pressing challenges,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said in a press release last week. “Greening agriculture, water and energy supply and manufacturing will be critical by 2050 to meet the needs of over 9 billion people.”

The report — OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction — examines projections of socio-economic trends over the next four decades, especially the impacts of environmental pollution on climate change, biodiversity, water and health.

Noting that the world’s population will be about two billion higher in 2050, the report found there will likely be increased pressures on natural resources that supply energy and food.

Without new policies in place, the report said the global energy mix in 2050 will not differ significantly from today, with the share of fossil energy at about 85%, renewables, including biofuels just over 10%, and the balance nuclear.

Similarily, GHG emissions are projected to increase in four decades by 50%, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions, unless new policies are implemented.

“The atmospheric concentration of GHGs could reach 685 parts per million (ppm) CO2-equivalents by 2050,” the report warned. “As a result, global average temperature is projected to be 3°C to 6°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed goal of limiting it to 2°C.”

It goes on to say that increased global carbon pricing makes environmental and economic sense as it could raise significant revenues and cost much less than delayed or moderate action.

Subsidising fossil fuels

In terms of reforming fossil fuel subsidies, the report found support to fossil fuels amounted to between €34-57 billion per year annum in OECD countries while developing economies provided over €303 billion in fossil fuel consumer subsidies in 2010.

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies could reduce energy-related GHG emissions, provide incentives for increased energy efficiency and renewable energy and also increase public finance for climate action, the report added.

Europe on the path to change

With its targets for a 20% carbon emissions reduction and 20% share of renewables in the overall electricity supply by 2020, Europe is already taking steps towards a greener future. But this latest report, which echoes similar concerns set out in an International Energy Association report in November last year, reinforces the need to establish a longer term path for action.

Europe has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80-95% by 2050 but it needs targets along the way to help it reach that goal. The European Wind Energy Association supports new targets for 2030 for renewable energy as one means of massively cutting carbon emissions in the power sector. With clear political support wind energy can met 50% of Europe’s electricity demand, with other renewable technologies making up the remaining 50%. Wind power is one way of helping Europe and the world avoid some of the grim predictions set out in the OECD report.

Chris Rose,