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What will wake politicians to threat of climate change?

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

As ordinary people try to cope with inflation and unemployment, and businesses struggle with higher taxes and falling demand — since consumers are scared to spend — few politicians are looking at life beyond the economic crises.

Anyone concerned about the kind of world their children will face, however, should be worried about the findings of the World Energy Outlook 2011 published recently by the International Energy Agency (IEA). To put it bluntly, the world is heading for disaster of irreparable climate change.

On the eve of yet another round of climate talks, which opens this week in Durban, South Africa, the report should be a clarion call for urgent action. Sadly, no one holds out any hope of progress or show of leadership. Governments are too busy trying to save today to look at tomorrow.

The IEA notes that in spite of an uneven recovery in the world economy and uncertain future prospects, “global primary energy demand rebounded by a remarkable 5 percent in 2010″ and carbon dioxide emissions reached yet another new high.

The agency tries to assess the state of the global energy market over the next 25 years. This is highly contentious territory: It involves making forecasts about controversial areas of modern economic life where powerful vested interests roam, technologies are changing rapidly and personal lifestyle choices are also key.

On top of that there are geopolitical issues, such as turmoil in the Middle East and whether to plunder pristine wilderness for new energy supplies.

The IEA has the advantage of being sober and thoughtful, and not given to exaggerated or scaremongering reporting. Indeed, some economists believe that oil prices that the IEA predicts are on the low side. The other advantage of the just-released IEA report is that it also looks at energy prospects in the light of global warming.

The report’s conclusions are sobering. It says: “There are few signs that the urgently needed change in global energy trends is under way.” It notes that “Subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption of fossil fuels jumped to over $400 billion. The number of people without access to electricity remained unacceptably high at 1.3 billion, around 20 percent of the world’s population. Despite the priority in many countries to increase energy efficiency, global energy intensity worsened for the second straight year.”

Natural and human disasters, such as the damage to Japan’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and tensions in the Middle East, along with governments’ preoccupation with coping with crises have also taken their toll. The disasters “have cast doubts on the reliability of energy supply, while concerns about sovereign financial integrity have shifted the focus of government attention away from energy policy and limited their means of policy intervention, boding ill for agreed global climate change objectives.”

The IEA’s conclusions on climate change make grim reading. “We cannot afford to delay further action to tackle climate change if the long-term target of limiting the global average temperature increase is to be achieved at reasonable cost.”

The deadline for action will come soon. Strict new controls on carbon emissions must be in place by 2017 because the existing capital stock of power plants, buildings and factories means that certain emissions are already locked in. “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 warned bleakly.

Climate experts say that to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 C above pre-industrial levels means limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent. The level in April was 393.

Some leading climate scientists including James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri advocate reducing emissions to 350 ppm. Many climate experts believe that any increase of more than 2 C would produce irreversible climate damage that would change life on Earth forever.

The IEA report shows that the world is presently on track for disaster. If what it calls the “new policies scenario” is followed, meaning governments cautiously implement commitments to restrain energy use, demand for energy rises by a third between 2010 and 2035 — assuming 3.5 percent annual average growth in GDP and a global population increase of 1.7 billion people. If growth is lower, it would make only a marginal difference.

The average crude oil import price would be $120 a barrel in 2010 dollars by 2035 (or $210 in nominal terms), but with price volatility. There would be a shortfall of 47 million barrels per day of oil, but this could be compensated by production of natural gas liquids (18 million bpd), unconventional sources and biofuels.

The dynamics of energy markets will also shift to newly developing countries, with China consolidating its position as the world’s biggest energy consumer, using 70 percent more than the United States, even though per capita use will be half that of the U.S. Countries outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the club of rich industrial nations), will account for 90 percent of population increase, 70 percent of economic output and 90 percent of energy demand in the 25 years from 2010.

But the “new policies scenario” would still cause global temperatures to rise by 3.5 C. If governments stand still and current policies continue, the temperature rise will be 6 C or more, bringing prospects of a fiery hell to life on Earth.

The IEA offers a “450 scenario” to contain the increase in greenhouse gases to 450 ppm and the temperature rise to 2 degrees. But it will require strict restrictions and new investments.

The report claims that “achieving energy for all will not cost the Earth,” but it estimates that $48 billion a year would have to be invested in energy between now and 2030, whereas only $9 billion was invested in 2009.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWordsMedia and wrote a guide to climate change talks in 2008.