The usually cautious International Energy Agency (IEA) warned last week that without far-reaching action in the next five years, the world will lock itself into high-emissions energy sources that will push climate change beyond the 2 degrees Celsius considered relatively “safe” by many scientists and officials. “As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the ‘lock-in’ of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals,” said IEA chief economist Fatih Birol. The IEA predicts that coal consumption could jump 65% by 2035, and that oil prices are likely to hit $150 a barrel. Subsidies of renewable energy are predicted to jump by four times, hitting $250 billion annually—but this is still well below current fossil fuel subsidies of $409 billion.
“Growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades,” said IEA director Maria van der Hoeven. “But we cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy. Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies. The Fukushima nuclear accident, the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and a sharp rebound in energy demand in 2010 which pushed CO2 emissions to a record high, highlight the urgency and the scale of the challenge.”
The IEA’s report is in line with recent research. A study in Nature last month found that emissions must peak in less than a decade and than fall quickly thereafter if the world is to have a likely (i.e. 66%) chance of avoiding a rise over 2 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the US Energy Department finds that global greenhouse gas emissions last year exceeded worst-case scenario predictions from just four years before. A rise of 6% (564 million additional tons) over 2009 levels was largely driven by three nations: the US, India, and China. (Mongabay, Nov. 13)
NASA’s “Operation IceBridge,” formed in 2009 to study the growing destabilization of glaciers worldwide, just released dramatic images of Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier shedding a massive iceberg, covering 340 square miles—an area larger than New York City. While this is not unprecedented, the NASA program also detected a gigantic crack in West Antarctica’s ice sheet, which could eventually split the glacier and produce an iceberg of heretofore unknown scale. Monitoring shows that the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are melting at an accelerating pace. If current rates of ice loss continue, sea level could rise by as much as a meter or more before the end of this century. (WP, Nov. 7; Epoch Times, Nov, 6)
Van der Hoeven’s invocation of “prosperity” as a threat points to a dilemma we have noted before: Whether it is possible to address the climate crisis under a system predicated on endless growth. The official position of the US, Europe and Japan—implicitly endorsed by van der Hoeven—is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from energy use. This strikes us as—at best—a reckless gamble with the planet’s future.
Perhaps with the current global Occupation movement, the potential exists to reclaim a forthright anti-capitalism from the dustbin to which the world’s rulers had consigned it since the end of the Cold War. The IEA provides an urgent imperative for a public seizure of the global mechanisms of production and their conscious reconstitution towards social and ecological ends—in a word, socialism—even if its own director seems afraid of the logical conclusions of her warnings.
See our last post on the global climate crisis.