The world is not in good shape. Food prices are rising, fresh water is depleting, energy prices are soaring, biodiversity is dying out, the population is growing, intense storms are damaging towns and cities, and floods and droughts threaten the livelihoods of millions. Clearly climate change is taking a big toll on human populations, just as the scientists predicted it would. And the rate of change is accelerating, according to the latest findings from the International Energy Agency (IEA). It appears we have even more to worry about because greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, hitting the highest carbon output in history.
That means the chances of keeping global temperatures below two degrees celsius by the end of the century are getting slimmer. Scientists say that if the Earth warms more than two degrees, then we will not be able to avoid catastrophic climate change. Low-lying countries like the small island states and the densely populated Bangladesh want the upper limit to be even lower, at 1.5 degrees celsius.
The IEA notes that last year a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon were released into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuels. If this pattern continues, the results will be excessive planetary warming that will disrupt even more lives. The IEA has calculated that if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, then annual energy related emissions should be no more than 32 gigatonnes by 2020. If this year’s emissions rise by as much as they did last year, that limit will be exceeded much earlier, making it all but impossible to keep warming to a manageable rate.
Three-quarters of this rise has come from growing economies such as India and China. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol says: ‘Our latest estimates are another wake-up call…Given the shrinking room for manoeuvre in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal, agreed [at the United Nations Climate Change Conference] in Cancún.’
However, international climate change negotiations are currently in deadlock. Rich countries want large emerging economies such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the BASICs) to cut their rising emissions, while the BASICs, along with the rest of the developing world, say it is the responsibility of rich countries to cut their emissions, since they caused climate change in the first place. The UN-led negotiations on a new global treaty to curb climate change have stalled following the massive momentum that built up just before the Copenhagen summit in 2009. That summit proved a major disappointment and soon after the weak Copenhagen Accord was signed on the very last day of the conference, the urgency surrounding the talks evaporated. The worldwide recession has meant rich countries are loath to take any action that might further slowdown their economies.
Opportunity, not threat
Many experts now believe that the key to progress is to see tackling emissions as an economic opportunity rather than a curb on growth. UK climate change expert Lord Stern says: ‘All countries, particularly in the rich world, should now be taking still stronger action to tackle climate change and to embark on the transition to low-carbon economic growth. This will be a new-energy Industrial Revolution, full of creativity and innovation and great benefits beyond simply cutting the risks from climate change. We can see its beginnings – it is time to accelerate.
In fact, since the current global economic recession began, presidents and prime ministers have been talking about green or sustainable growth. US president Barack Obama referred to it in his inauguration speech. At a more recent meeting of Asia Pacific countries, his commerce secretary Gary Locke announced: ‘In the next few decades, world economies will need to rebuild and reinvent virtually every industrial activity – from power generation and transportation to manufacturing and construction – all to succeed in an energy environment that looks drastically different from the one that we’re used to.’
Scientists are now calling for a major shift to clean energy and energy efficiency to curb emissions. In its recent special report on renewable energy and climate change mitigation, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for nations to invest heavily in renewable energy to cut prices and make it more affordable.
Since most carbon emissions come from burning dirty fossil fuels to produce energy, the key to reducing those emissions remains the development of clean energy sources. The US, however, is still lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil when it comes to investing in green energy. China, for example, is now the market leader in solar technology and hydroelectric power.
Tariq Banuri, who heads the sustainable division of the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs in New York and prepares the annual report called the World Economic and Social Survey (WESS), says: ‘In 2009, the WESS report demonstrated that the costs of renewable energy could be brought down to affordable levels within a decade through a coordinated global plan. Several countries are acting in ways that contribute to this result, although to my knowledge China is the only country that has consciously adopted the cost reduction target. Specifically, its plans are to make renewable energy competitive with fossil fuels in five years.’
Brazil is the other large emerging economy investing in clean fuels and it has become a market leader in ethanol. Brazil doesn’t need to invest in solar or wind energies since it has large tracts of land and plenty of water. These allow it simply to grow its bio-resources.
In the developed world, the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark, have become world leaders in developing sophisticated wind technology. In Copenhagen, wind energy from large offshore wind turbines is actually cheaper than energy generated from coal plants. The EU as a whole is investing heavily in solar energy and plans to set up extensive solar panels in the Sahara Desert, which will be initially expensive.
‘Each country has to look at its infrastructure and investment and see which path is accessible and affordable for it,’ explains Banuri. ‘The future really has to be about making renewable energy cheap. Instead of asking how to afford something that is too expensive, we need to ask how to make it affordable. This is like turning a corner and seeing the world before you. Once you turn the corner, the solution to climate change will emerge automatically.’
Many experts are pinning their hopes on the UN summit, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The Rio+20 conference (it has been 20 years since the Earth Summit was held in Rio) will focus on two topics, one of which is the ‘green economy’, and will be attended by all major heads of state.
It is hoped that the world will come together in Rio to formulate an action plan. Economic growth can be compatible with reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide – Sweden has decoupled its growth from emissions. But experts say that green growth could have even bigger consequences than just reshaping an economy. They say it could inaugurate the same sort of system transformation as the railway or the internet caused. Nobody can really foresee how green systems will transform the way we live and work and what new businesses will evolve. But those who believe in green growth say it will end up creating a brave new world for our children and all the resources with which the Earth is blessed.
Rina Saeed Khan
This article originally appeared in Accountancy Futures journal in September 2011.