See the Tabbed Pages for links to video tutorials, and a linked list of post titles grouped by topic.

This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

OECD Warns of Dire Consequences of Climate Inaction

Summary.  The OECD reports that the sustainability of the Earth’s natural environment and human population is threatened over the next forty years.  In its “OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050” it summarizes threats to the planet’s climate, its biodiversity, the water resources that supply human needs and economic activities, and human health.  Growth of the world’s population and concomitant significant expansion of its economic output will put strains on these systems. 

Importantly, under its Baseline scenario, which assumes no new policies to combat emissions of greenhouse gases, OECD projects that the world will need 80% more energy in 2050 than now, 85% of which will still be supplied by fossil fuels.  The resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions will threaten many aspects of human life, because Baseline policies are insufficient to keep the rise in global average temperature below the internationally formulated goal of 2ºC. 

OECD proposes that aggressive action should be begun right away to limit greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep within the international goal.  Barring such initiatives now, it will require more urgent, immediate and costly measures by about 2020 to recover lost ground and remain on the path toward achieving the international goal.  The Organization projects that expenditure of only 5.5% of worldwide economic product would be needed to reduce emissions by about 70% by 2050, which is deemed sufficient to meet the goal.  OECD believes this is achievable and highly worthy of the required effort. 

Environmental Outlook.   

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued its “OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction” (Outlook) on March 15, 2012.  The report covers four major aspects related to the climate and sustainability efforts worldwide, namely, global warming, biodiversity, water resources and the effects of increasing pollution on human health.  This post will focus primarily on climate change.

Population Growth and Profound Economic Expansion. 

The Outlook points out that the population of the world is expected to grow from 7 billion souls at present to more than 9 billion by 2050, an increase of 29%.  Over the same period, the economic activity in the world is expected to grow to about four times its present level.  The growing population in the world, and the continuing movement of much of the world’s people from poverty into the economic middle class, means that demand for energy and for natural resources will likewise expand greatly.  Higher living standards suggest that the people of the world will expect to consume more goods and services.  All these factors indicate that there will be significant stresses on the world’s societies.  It is expected that 70% of the population will become urban dwellers by 2050, exacerbating problems such as air pollution, congestion and waste management.

The Outlook expects that in support of this expansion, barring significant policy changes, the world’s energy demand will be 80% higher in 2050 than at present, and that fossil fuels will remain as the principal energy source, providing about 85% of that energy.  These conclusions are based on a “Baseline” scenario, which assumes no new policies directed toward mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and incorporates extrapolated socioeconomic trends continuing from the present time.

Increased Emissions of Damaging Greenhouse Gases.

The expanded use of fossil fuels will lead to a corresponding growth in the annual rate of emitting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.  Since the physical processes governing the fate of atmospheric CO2 leave most of it in the atmosphere, its concentration will continue to increase as the emissions rate increases.  Much of this growth will come from developing countries of the world, which the Outlook exemplifies as BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa).  Beyond the increase in fossil fuels, use of land and water resources for agriculture to provide food for the expanding population and its changing dietary habits will impose increased stress on the planet.

The Outlook states in bold emphasisContinued degradation and erosion of natural environmental capital is expected to 2050, with the risk of irreversible changes that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards.

A summary of some of the dangers envisioned in the Outlook is given below.

Climate change

o       Greenhouse gas emissions and concomitant atmospheric concentrations continue to grow, especially from energy-derived CO2.

o       There is increasing evidence for climate change and its effects.

  • Pledges by the nations of the world were given at the Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) conferences to limit greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to keep the atmospheric concentration below 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2-equivalents, the level thought to be the upper bound for keeping the long-term average increase in global temperature below 2ºC (3.6ºF) above the temperature that prevailed prior to the industrial revolution.  It appears these are incapable of being fulfilled.

Biodiversity continues to shrink in response to climate change and ncreased land use

Water resources

o       More people will live in areas of growing water shortages and increased groundwater pollution.

o       More people, both urban and rural, will not have access to sanitary water sources.

Health and Environment

o       Increasing levels of SO2 and NOX air pollution in the urban areas of developing countries adversely impact the health and mortality of affected populations.

The Outlook also lists certain areas where efforts have led to a slowing of detrimental processes, and even to certain improvements.  No such improvements were identified for climate change, however.  Trends that reduce the emissions rate were identified based on increased efficiencies in developed countries, and a reduction in deforestation in OECD and BRIICS countries.

Consequences of Inaction in Climate Policy

Global Warming.  The Outlook expresses concern that in the absence of more ambitious policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, climate change bringing more disruptive effects will be locked in.  It envisions greenhouse gas emissions growing, by region, under the Baseline scenario, as shown below.

OECD Baseline scenario projection of annual greenhouse gas emissions over 40 years from 2010 to 2050.  Emissions are in Gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent and run from 0 to 90.  “AI” means Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol covering developed countries at the time the Protocol was negotiated.  “Rest of BRIICS” does not include Russia.  ROW indicates rest of the world.
Source: OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction. Highlights.

The projection expects overall emissions to increase 50% between 2010 and 2050, arising largely from the BRIICS group and due mainly to growth by 70% in CO2 emissions from energy production.  According to the Baseline, these emissions could result in atmospheric CO2 concentrations of as much as 685 ppm by 2050, far in excess of the upper bound of 450 ppm recognized as the goal required to keep long-term global average temperatures from increasing more than 2ºC; this predicted high level could bring the temperature increase to the range of 3ºC to 6ºC (5.4ºF to 10.8ºF) above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

The Outlook deems that pledges by the countries of the world undertaken at the  Cancun Conference are inadequate to constrain global temperature rise to 2ºC.  As a result, it predicts that global precipitation patterns would change, glaciers and permafrost at high latitudes would melt increasingly more rapidly, severe sea level rise would result, and extreme weather events would increase in frequency and intensity. In order to restore the world’s climate trajectory to a path that would likely avoid consequences such as these, the Outlook foresees the need for more rapid and more expensive reductions in emissions to be effective by 2020, compared to the more long-term, reasoned approach that the world’s nations might have embarked on earlier.

Biodiversity, as measured by mean species diversity, is predicted to decrease by 10% by 2050, largely as a result of the effects of climate change, commercial forestry, and the expanded use of land for cultivating bioenergy crops.  Freshwater diversity will also likely suffer losses beyond the one-third already lost.  It is estimated that loss of biodiversity has a value between US$2 and 5 trillion per year.

Water resources will be further strained, in view of the increase in the global population and demands placed on water for consumption, industrial and manufacturing use, and cooling of thermal electric generation facilities.

Human health will suffer under the Baseline scenario, due primarily to higher mortality arising from airborne particulate matter and ground level ozone.

Policy Changes to Minimize Further Climate Change

The Outlook points out that the Baseline scenario emphasizes the high priority of changing the world’s policies in order to minimize the problems identified above.  It is very concerned that natural systems have “tipping points” of change, beyond which positive feedback mechanisms make further detrimental changes all the easier, becoming “irreversible”.  It recognizes that the factors contributing to climate and environmental tipping points remain poorly understood.

Acting now makes environmental and economic sense”, according to the Outlook.  There remains a possibility of restraining greenhouse gas emissions so that the maximum annual rate could occur by 2020, and then decrease year by year after that.  Reducing the annual emissions rate in this way could succeed in keeping the world’s long-term global temperature rise within the 2ºC limit. This ambition implicitly refers to a metaphor in an earlier post according to which the atmosphere is a CO2 bathtub whose faucet keeps adding more CO2 but whose drain is mostly closed so that very little CO2 is removed.  The result is that the level of CO2 in the bathtub keeps rising.  In fact, CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 100 years or more.  This metaphor emphasizes that even if the annual rate of global CO2 emissions falls, each year’s new contribution still raises the level of the CO2 atmosphere in the bathtub.  It is the cumulative, final level of CO2 that determines what the long-term global average temperature rise will be, not the annual emissions rate.

The Outlook alludes to estimates that costs of harms and damages due to climate change by 2050 could be as high as 14% of global average per capita consumption.  Compared to this, the report suggests, for example, that pricing fossil fuel use, or greenhouse gas emissions, sufficient to achieve the 2ºC limit (the 450 Core scenario) would impact global gross domestic product by only 5.5% by 2050, while succeeding to reduce annual emissions by about 70% by then (see the graphic below).

Relative changes in GDP (dark blue) and greenhouse gas emissions (light blue), giving the effect of implementing the 450 ppm Core scenario (- - -) compared to the Baseline scenario ( ______ ).
Source: OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction. Highlights.

The Outlook proposes broad policy initiatives that can help achieve the benefits shown in the above graphic, and its sustainability objectives more generally.  These include

  • Pricing pollution and harmful greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently higher than environmentally sound alternatives that the market will reward the latter.  Mechanisms to accomplish this policy include environmental taxes and emissions trading (cap-and-trade) schemes.  Cap and trade is already in place in the European Union, California , and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) operating in the northeastern states of the U. S., as well as in certain other countries of the world.

  • Removing subsidies that promote use of fossil fuels and increase emission of greenhouse gases.  The Outlook cites fossil fuel subsidies of US$45-75 billion per year in OECD countries, and over US$400 billion in 2010 in developing and emerging countries.  The most recent post here points out that in the U. S., subsidies for fossil fuels have historically been as much as 5 times greater than for renewable energy sources.

The report “OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction” (as summarized here from its Highlights) covers four interrelated areas of the issue of the sustainability of human and other life forms on the planet.  The difficult problem of greenhouse gas-induced warming of long-term global average temperatures forms an important portion of the report.
The Outlook joins the most recent versions of the annual products on energy and the environment generated by the U. S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency and the OECD’s International Energy Agency .  The latter agencies provide data and analytical information, but do not offer policy recommendations.
The recent annual meetings of the Congress of the (193) Parties under the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun  (2010) had as an important objective negotiating a follow-on agreement to take effect upon the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2012.  These conferences failed to reach agreement on this central aspect of their agendas (but each did agree to other provisions; see the linked posts).  Most recently at the Durban conference in 2011 the attending nations conceded that the objective of the Copenhagen and Cancun conferences with respect to a successor to the Kyoto Protocol was unattainable.  Rather, they agreed to the Durban Platform, embodying the new, extended objective of negotiating a legally binding world-wide treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, and to implement it by 2020.  Unfortunately, as noted, these dates are greatly delayed from the earlier timeline tied to the Kyoto Protocol.  In the interim no worldwide accord is in place that governs or constrains greenhouse gas emissions, although regional emissions limitations in the European Union, California, RGGI, and certain other countries are in place.
Yet the OECD Outlook stresses that major environmental harms, and damage to planetary sustainability, will ensue under the Baseline scenario that envisions no new environmental policies until 2050.  Of relevance under the present schedule of the UNFCCC, absent imminent action more urgent, drastic and costly measures are envisioned as necessary by 2020 in order to achieve the 450 ppm/2ºC objective. 

Once CO2 and other greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, the dynamics of their movements disperse the gases across the face of the entire planet.  The gases carry no tag identifying their source country.  Their effects on the climate likewise are felt all around the world.  Long-term warming of the global average temperature leads to harmful effects such as rising sea levels, extremes of weather, floods and droughts.  For these reasons it is incumbent on all nations of the world to come together as soon as possible to implement policies that mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases so as to seek to minimize the harms that they bring about.

© 2012 Henry Auer

No comments:

Post a Comment