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Fossil Fuel Train Heads Into Overdrive

By Stephen Leahy

10 November, 2007
Inter Press Service

BROOKLIN, Canada, Nov 9 (IPS) - Today's skyrocketing fossil fuel use will accelerate far faster in the coming decades, driving oil prices higher and virtually guaranteeing catastrophic climate change in the decades to come, energy experts say.

Emissions of greenhouse gases could increase a staggering 57 percent by 2030 if current trends continue, and with the strong growth of coal and oil energy use in India and China, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported this week.

"If we get that kind of increase it will be societal suicide," says Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University.

"It really is a huge increase," Schmidt told IPS.

Even the normally sanguine IEA -- an independent energy advisor to rich countries -- is worried. It calls these findings "alarming" in its World Energy Outlook 2007 report both in terms of climate change and energy security.

"If governments don't change their policies, oil and gas imports, coal use and greenhouse gas emission are set to grow exponentially through 2030 ... these trends could threaten energy security and accelerate climate change," said Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, in a statement.

To put the IEA projection in context, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recommended global reductions in emissions of 70 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 to lessen the risks of dangerous climate change. It bears repeating: the IPCC recommendation is to push global emission levels 70 percent lower than they were in 1990.

The gap between where we should be going and where we may end up threatens to become so large that Nobuo calls the IPCC target "scientific fiction".

The IPCC's "stabilisation target" is between 450 to 500 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which is likely to keep the global average temperature increase to around 2 degrees C.

"That target is a basically a best guess," says Schmidt.

There are many factors at play that make such predictions difficult. Among these are both negative and positive feedbacks, where 450 ppm could translate into a 4.0 degree C rise -- or maybe only 1.5 degrees, he said.

The IEA report calculates that the current trend of skyrocketing growth in fossil fuel use, coal in particular, will drive the global average temperature up 3.0 degrees by 2030 and ultimately climb to 6.0 degrees C in the following decades.

A number of scientific and economic reports predict that any increase over 2.0 degrees C will create a chaotic world of constant crisis. Floods and droughts will affect more than a billion people, hundreds of millions will starve and as many more will become environmental refugees banging on the doors of Europe, the United States, Australia and other rich nations. At the same time, the global economy will suffer tens of billions of dollars in losses.

Even in the IEA's most optimistic scenario, where governments accomplish current promised carbon reductions, emissions would rise by 27 percent by 2030.

Achieving the IPCC stabilisation target will require "exceptionally vigorous policy action", the IEA report concludes.

"Urgent action is needed if greenhouse gas concentrations are to be stabilised at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system," it says.

The reason for the bleak outlook is that emerging giants China and India, which account for most of the increase in energy demand, will likely use CO2-laden coal as their primary energy source.

The report warns: "...coal sees the biggest increase in demand in absolute terms, jumping by 73 percent between 2005 and 2030" with China and India accounting for 80 percent of that increase.

In just the past year alone, China has built enough new coal power plants to meet India's and Britain's energy needs combined, says Joanna Lewis, a senior international fellow and energy expert at the U.S.-based Pew Centre on Global Climate Change.

Such is the scale of China's huge energy demands that "despite meeting aggressive renewable energy targets, the coal power sector has become even more dominant," Lewis told IPS. "The IEA paints a very scary picture."

However, Lewis notes that IEA projections have been wrong in the past, most notably underestimating energy use by China and India. In addition, many other factors such as political instability or economic recessions could change the details of these projections -- but not the overall trends.

Moreover, technologies are currently available to achieve the stabilisation target, Lewis said.

The IEA's World Energy Outlook fails to incorporate substantial expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements in its scenarios, says the international environmental group Greenpeace.

Making wide-ranging investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies could stabilise carbon dioxide emissions from China's and India's burgeoning economies and return carbon dioxide emissions to current levels by 2050, says Greenpeace energy consultant Sven Teske.

China and India already produce nearly a quarter of the world's renewable electricity, Teske said in a statement.

Industrialised countries have to do their part and rapidly reduce their CO2 emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, instead of the 15 percent emissions increase shown in the IEA projections, he said.

It is important to remember that energy use is not the real problem, it is carbon emissions. Carbon sequestration technologies -- removing carbon and storing it -- do exist, but they are very expensive, says Schmidt. However, with the higher oil and energy prices forecast by the IEA, investments in using and developing sequestration technologies could decouple carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels by 2030.

Recognising the urgency, the IEA report says that if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change, it will require immediate policy and technological transformation "on an unprecedented scale".

Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service




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