We have reached a fork in the road on climate warns the International Energy Agency (IEA). In the next 5 years we can decarbonize new energy production and increase energy efficiency or the earth will face irreversible destructive climate change. Time has run out. Every new power plant and activity that emits greenhouse gases will lock in emissions for the life of the unit, raising CO2 levels to the point that there will be no turning back from devastating global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.
"The door is closing," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), told the Guardian. "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."
Every month now counts: if the world is to stay below 2C of warming, which scientists regard as the limit of safety, then emissions (Fish's Ed. this is an error by the journalist. 450 ppm is concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere) 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 a new analysis by the IEA, published on Wednesday. This gives an ever-narrowing gap in which to reform the global economy on to a low-carbon footing.
Dr James Hansen has pressed for a target of 350 parts per million (ppm) CO2 in the atmosphere because his research shows that the climate is even more sensitive to greenhouse gases than the IPCC estimates from the last IPCC report. The real scientific debate on climate change is how sensitive the climate is to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, not that climate change is driven by human activities.
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.
Birol's warning comes at a crucial moment in international negotiations on climate change, as governments gear up for the next fortnight of talks in Durban, South Africa, from late November. "If we do not have an international agreement, whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding temperatures to 2C of warming] will be closed forever," said Birol.
The IEA report shows that the demand for fossil fuels is stimulated by enormous direct subsidies. Subsidies are justified by claims that subsidies help the poor, but IEA figures show that less than 10% of subsidies go to the poor. In fact, the subsidies are strong incentives for continued high rates of fossil fuel consumption by the middle class and the wealthy. Moreover, indirect subsidies, such as society paying for the high health care costs of coal power pollution are not considered by the IEA report. The extremely high costs of military action by the United States to secure middle east oil supplies is also not considered.
Fossil fuel subsidies are distorting markets, impeding change to clean energy.
Direct subsidies to fossil fuels are six times greater than direct subsidies to renewable energy according to the IEA. Because these figures don't consider the environmental costs of fossil fuel burning, the hidden subsidies (economic externalities) are far higher.
Fossil-fuel consumers worldwide received about six times more state subsidies last year than were given to the renewable-energy industry, according to the chief adviser to oil-importing nations.
Aid to cut the price of gasoline, gas and coal rose by more than a third to $409 billion as global energy prices increased, compared with $66 billion of support for biofuels, wind power and solar energy, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said today in its World Energy Outlook.
While fossil fuels still meet the majority of world energy demand, the subsidies are “creating market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption,” the agency said. “The costs of subsidies to fossil fuels generally outweigh the benefits.”
The United States and the world need to change energy policies in less than 5 years to charge for the full costs of fossil fuels and to increase incentives to renewable energy sources to avoid a climate catastrophe. Renewable energy is jobs intensive but cheap on resource consumption. Subsidies for domestic renewable energy will build good, stable American jobs and will help revitalize our economy.