Warning Signs


The warning is about as stark as they come. A report released last week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offers a thorough and grim environmental outlook for the globe if drastic measures are not taken immediately to control climate change. The outlook describes water shortages, loss of biodiversity, economic impacts and deaths that will likely result from a continuation of the present course of global development. Some of the report’s most striking warnings include:

• Pressures on the planet’s ecosystem are now so great that future generations could face falling living standards.

• The population is expected to increase from roughly 7 billion people today to more than 9 billion in 2050. The global economy is expected to recover from the financial crisis and ultimately quadruple in size. However, the financial cost of failing to address climate change could result in an up to 14% loss in per capita consumption worldwide by 2050, according to some estimates.

• Pollution will become the biggest cause of premature death, killing an estimated 3.6 million people per year by 2050.

• Air pollution alone will be a major killer, overtaking both poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water as a global health threat.

• Due to dependence on fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use will grow by 70%, the OECD found. This will help drive up the global average temperature by 3° to 6 ° Celsius by 2100. Not only does this far exceed the internationally agreed-upon global warming limit of two degrees, but three degrees may be the “tipping point” where climate change could run out of control, scientists say.

• Because the population will grow so dramatically, there will be a 55% increase in demand for water, and 40% of the world’s population will be living under severe water stress.

• Groundwater depletion will be the biggest threat to agriculture and to urban water supplies, while pollution from sewage and waste water—including chemicals used in cleaning—will put further strain on global water supplies.

• Biodiversity will decline by 10% on land, with the worst impacts felt in Asia, Europe and southern Africa.

This outlook is especially striking considering its source. The OECD is a forum for governments of “free-market” countries to meet, discuss and coordinate policies that stimulate economic growth. It was originally formed under post-World-War II Marshall Plan in Europe and has expanded to include more than 30 countries worldwide. The OECD’s outlook on these topics matters enormously on the global stage and has an effect on how international bodies like the World Health Organization, United Nation and International Monetary Fund approach policies going forward.

But the report isn’t all bad news. It also offers urgent advice.

OECD’s advice includes getting rid of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and instead encouraging energy efficiency and bolstering the renewables market. For example, the report said that many countries treat diesel fuel for vehicles differently than they do other types of gasoline, with tax breaks that encourage the consumption of diesel. While diesel vehicle fuel produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, diesel is far worse when it comes to small particulate matter.

OECD officials say that changing the way industries grow can help abate climate change. “Greener sources of growth can help governments today as they tackle these pressing challenges,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria said in a statement. “Greening agriculture, water and energy supply and manufacturing will be critical by 2050 to meet the needs of over 9 billion people.”

The OECD also concludes that the cheapest policy response to climate change would be to set a global carbon price, which would require interconnecting a range of national and regional emissions trading schemes. Scrapping inefficient fossil fuel subsidies would also increase global real income by 0.3% in 2050, the report said.

But if no action is taken, the report is clear about the consequences.

“Providing for a further two billion people by 2050 and improving the living standards for all will challenge our ability to manage and restore those natural assets on which all life depends,” the report warned. “Failure to do so will have serious consequences, especially for the poor, and ultimately undermine the growth and human development of future generations.”