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Climate warning

November 10, 2011

The International Energy Agency has warned that the world faces irreversible and dangerous climate change if governments fail to cut rising subsidies for fossil fuels and take steps to increase energy efficiency.

Industrial smokestacks with clouds of smoke
The IEA says the world's energy infrastructure must changeImage: picture-alliance / chromorange

The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned world leaders this week that they could lose the chance to limit global warning if bold action isn't taken to lower emissions in the next five years.

Current clean energy technologies are insufficient to meet carbon reduction targets, so in the nearer term improving energy efficiency should be the top priority, the Paris-based agency said in a statement.

The agency's chief economist, Fatih Birol, said in London on Wednesday that governments must slash subsidies for fossil fuels and push harder to increase energy efficiency.

Temperatures could rise

Presenting the agency's annual World Energy Outlook report, Birol pointed out that nations have been backsliding on their promises, with energy efficiency having worsened for the second year in a row.

If current trends continue, Birol said, international agreements to cap temperatures at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels will no longer be honored. That's the threshold beyond which some scientists have said serious climate disruption could be triggered.

A parched, dry field in Rajasthan in India
Scientists say temperature rises can cause extreme conditions such as droughtImage: dpa

"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,“ Birol said.

The IEA report said that temperatures will rise by 3.5 degrees Celsius even if all countries follow through on the promises they have already made to curb emissions and invest in clean energy. But if the promises are violated, the report warned that in the long term global temperatures could soar to six degrees Celsius or more above preindustrial levels.

No political will

Despite the bleak picture, the IEA economist said he was skeptical that governments are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Birol said there was a lack of political will among leaders to make drastic changes to their energy infrastructure.

The warnings come ahead of crucial United Nations climate talks starting in Durban, South Africa, later this month.

“We cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable use of energy," IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said in the report. "Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system.”

Governments that fail to introduce “stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies” would the door close on their goal of limiting the temperature rise, she warned.

The IEA report said that worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide reached record levels in 2010. It estimated that global demand for energy will rise by a third between 2010 and 2035, with much of the demand fueled by rapidly growing Asian nations.

China alone will consume 70 percent more energy than the US by 2035, the report said. At the same time, the share of renewable energy will rise from 13 to just 18 percent.

High oil prices

The IEA, which represents the world's biggest oil consumers, also expects already high crude prices to rise drastically in the coming years.

The crucial factor is just how much investment pours into the politically turbulent nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the agency said.

Oil being pumped at a refinery
The IEA expects crude oil prices to jump in the next few yearsImage: picture alliance/dpa

"If, between 2011 and 2015, investment in the MENA region runs one third lower than the $100 billion per year required, consumers could face a near-term rise in the oil price to $150 a barrel," the IEA said in a statement accompanying its World Energy Outlook 2011.

Referring to the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear facility earlier this year, the IEA, which advises 28 industrialized nations, said it didn't expect the incident to have any significant long-term effect on the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Some countries have already changed their nuclear policies, either abandoning previous steps towards building new nuclear power plants, as in Italy, or accelerating or introducing timetables to phase out nuclear plants, as in Germany and Switzerland.

But the IEA said countries such as China, India, Russia and South Korea will continue to expand their use of atomic energy. It concluded global nuclear energy generation would increase 70 percent by 2035.

Author: Rolf Wenkel / sp
Editor: Sam Edmonds