Climate Change’s Closing Door


The Guardian reported last November that, judging by “the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure”, we likely have little more than five years left to put a lid on carbon emissions before losing the chance of avoiding serious climate change. Although I’ve never been tempted to doubt the scientific consensus on climate change, I think I’ve been relying on wishful thinking to avoid feeling too anxious about it (probably like almost everyone else), but I’ve got to admit that these warnings are starting to get to me-

The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever”, according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.

Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this “lock-in” effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change, the world’s foremost authority on energy economics has found. If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous.

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

If the world is to stay below 2C of warming, which scientists regard as the limit of safety, then emissions must be held to no more than 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the level is currently around 390ppm. But the world’s existing infrastructure is already producing 80% of that “carbon budget”, according to the IEA’s analysis, published on Wednesday. This gives an ever-narrowing gap in which to reform the global economy on to a low-carbon footing.

If current trends continue, and we go on building high-carbon energy generation, then by 2015 at least 90% of the available “carbon budget” will be swallowed up by our energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, there will be no room for manoeuvre at all – the whole of the carbon budget will be spoken for, according to the IEA’s calculations

Funny, I don’t remember hearing about the IEA report via American mass media, although given how little time they spend on reporting scientific findings, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. I’m still patiently waiting for an intrepid reporter at one of the zillion Republican debates to challenge Rick Santorum on his explicit climate change denial in the face of the ever mounting evidence. He did say recently: “You hear all the time, the left – ‘Oh, the conservatives are the anti-science party.’ No we’re not. We’re the truth party.” Surely that invites a polite question on what he means by “the truth” here, and how he would go about establishing it…

By the way, lest you think that the IEA is some liberal advocacy group whose studies can’t be trusted, it’s actually an international organization with 28 member states, including all of the following-