World on track for nearly 11-degree temperature rise, energy expert says

November 28, 2011

The chief economist for the International Energy Agency said Monday that current global energy consumption levels put the Earth on a trajectory to warm by 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2100, an outcome he called “a catastrophe for all of us.”

Fatih Birol spoke as as delegates from nearly 200 countries convened the opening day of annual U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

International climate negotiators have pledged to keep the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. The Earth has already warmed 0.8 degrees Celsius, or 1.4 Fahrenheit, so far, according to climate scientists.

According to the IEA’s most recent analysis, heat-trapping emissions from the world’s energy infrastructure will lead to a 2-degree Celsius increase in the Earth’s temperature that, as more capacity is added to the system, will climb to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

Unless there is a shift away from some of the fossil fuel energy now used for electricity generation and transportation, Birol said, “the world is perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius increase in temperature.

“Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,” he said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Birol spoke in unusually blunt terms about the climate implications of the global energy mix, implications that are disputed by many conservatives in the United States who don’t believe in the connection between human activity and climate change.

David Burwell, who directs the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment, said Birol’s comments have “big implications for capital investment in energy,” though he noted that it will be oil executives and others in the private sector who will drive many of the key decisions.

“We can try to regulate, we can try to incentivize, but ultimately, they’ve got to make the decisions, they’ve got to make the investments,” he said, adding that government officials should engage with the energy industry on this topic. “Now’s the time to have the conversation about investments.”

Burwell added that while the IEA has analyzed energy use and production for years, this is the first year its officials have spoken this publicly about the need to shift gears.

“They’re definitely raising the red flag, because the numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “This is the first year they’ve started stamping their foot and saying, ‘Lookit, listen to us.’ ”

In an interview after his talk, Birol said he believes his agency’s analysis is having an impact in places such as China, which he said would outpace the European Union in per capita carbon emissions by 2015. He added that by 2035, China would outrank the industrialized world as the single biggest overall emitter of greenhouse gases in history.

“They are one of the few countries putting an emphasis on climate change,” Birol said, noting they will experiment next year with putting a price on carbon in some regions.

The U.N. talks, meanwhile, suffered a setback as Canada announced Monday that it would not agree to sign up to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 climate pact that set emissions targets for all major industrialized nations. Canada had pledged to cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2012 compared with 1990 levels; as of 2009, its carbon output was 29.8 percent above 1990 levels.

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