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IEA: World is hurtling toward irreversible climate change

Thursday 10 Nov 2011 3:01 p.m.

Polar bears have become a spokesanimal for climate change as rising temperatures melt their sea ice habitat (Reuters)

Polar bears have become a spokesanimal for climate change as rising temperatures melt their sea ice habitat (Reuters)

By Sarah DiLorenzo

The International Energy Agency has warned that the world is hurtling toward irreversible climate change and will lose the chance to limit warming if it doesn't take bold action in the next five years.

In its annual World Energy Outlook, the agency spelled out the consequences if those steps aren't taken and what needs to be done to cap global temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. That is the threshold beyond which some scientists have said catastrophic changes could be triggered.

But the agency's chief economist, Fatih Birol, said this week that he is not optimistic that leaders are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

"We are going in the wrong direction in terms of climate change," he said in an interview ahead of the report's official release.

He noted, for instance, that governments around the world have put increasing energy efficiency at the top of their to-do lists, but efficiency has worsened for two years in a row now.

Birol said such backslides have real consequences.

"After 2017, we will lose the chance to limit the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius," he said.

The report said that the current promises to reduce emissions, when taken together, will likely result in an increase of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius - and there isn't any guarantee those commitments will even be carried out. Without them, the picture is bleaker: an increase of 6 degrees Celsius or more.

Birol said the world doesn't lack the technology to tackle the problem - just the political will.

"Even with existing technologies, you can improve substantially, but to do that, you need some price incentives and these price incentives are not there," he said.

In fact, there are incentives to consume more: The report said subsidies for fossil fuels have risen past US$400 billion. Birol said those need to be cut and instead a price needs to be levied on carbon. Only when "dirty" fuels become more expensive, he said, will governments follow through on their commitments to increase energy efficiency.

The report pushes hard the need to increase efficiency, generally considered the easiest way to reduce consumption since it has a price-incentive built in. It has become even more important since Japan's nuclear accident sparked a rethinking of the use of atomic technology previously seen as key to cutting emissions.

"The most important contribution to reaching energy security and climate goals comes form the energy that we do not consume," the report said.

It also predicted that oil prices would rise over the long term, though a weak global economy and the return of Libyan oil to the market would ease short-term pressures.

How high the price goes will depend, in part, on whether investors are willing to cough up what the Middle East and North Africa needs to keep pumping. Birol said last month that unrest in the region has made investors reluctant to pour money in.

AP

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