Landmark UN analysis concludes global roll-out of clean energy would shave only a tiny fraction off economic growth
The Guardian, Sunday 13 April 2014 06.19 EDT
The landmark UN report on climate change concludes moving to renewable energy is achievable. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Catastrophic climate change can be averted without sacrificing living standards according to a UN report, which concludes that the transformation required to a world of clean energy is eminently affordable.
“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” said economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team.
The cheapest and least risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all dirty fossil fuels in coming decades, the report found. Gas – including that from the global fracking boom – could be important during the transition, Edenhofer said, but only if it replaced coal burning.
The authoritative report, produced by 1,250 international experts and approved by 194 governments, dismisses fears that slashing carbon emissions would wreck the world economy. It is the final part of a trilogy that has already shown that climate change is “unequivocally” caused by humans and that, unchecked, it poses a grave threat to people and could lead to wars and mass migration.
Diverting hundred of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%, the IPCC report concluded.
“The report is clear: the more you wait, the more it will cost [and] the more difficult it will become,” said EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said: “This report is a wake-up call about global economic opportunity we can seize today as we lead on climate change.”
The UK’s energy and climate secretary, Ed Davey, said: “The [report shows] the tools we need to tackle climate change are available, but international efforts need to significantly increase.”
The IPCC economic analysis did not include the benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which could outweigh the costs. The benefits include reducing air pollution, which plagues China and recently hit the UK, and improved energy security, which is currently at risk in eastern Europe due to the actions of Russia – a large producer of gas – in Ukraine.
The new IPCC report warns that carbon emissions have soared in the last decade and are now growing at almost double the previous rate. But its comprehensive analysis found rapid action can still limit global warming to 2C, the internationally agreed safe limit, if low-carbon energy triples or quadruples by 2050.
“It is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living,” said Professor Jim Skea, an energy expert at Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC report team. “It is not a hair shirt change of lifestyle at all that is being envisaged and there is space for poorer countries to develop too,” Skea told the Guardian.
Nonetheless, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change at the lowest cost, the report envisages an energy revolution ending centuries of dominance by fossil fuels – which will require significant political and commercial change. On Thursday, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid style campaign against fossil fuel companies, which he blames for the “injustice” of climate change.
Friends of the Earth’s executive director, Andy Atkins, said: “Rich nations must take the lead by rapidly weaning themselves off coal, gas and oil and funding low-carbon growth in poorer countries.”
Along with measures that cut energy waste, renewable energy – such as wind, hydropower and solar – is viewed most favourably by the report as a result of its falling costs and large-scale deployment in recent years.
The report includes nuclear power as a mature low-carbon option, but cautions that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – trapping the CO2 from coal or gas burning and then burying it – is also included, but the report notes it is an untested technology on a large scale and may be expensive.
Biofuels, used in cars or power stations, could play a “critical role” in cutting emissions, the IPCC found, but it said the negative effects of some biofuels on food prices and wildlife remained unresolved.
The report found that current emission-cutting pledges by the world’s nations make it more likely than not that the 2C limit will be broken and it warns that delaying action any further will increase the costs.
Delay could also force extreme measures to be taken including sucking CO2 out of the air.
This might be done by generating energy by burning plants and trees, which had absorbed carbon from the atmosphere, and then using CCS to bury the emissions. But the IPCC warned such warned such carbon removal technologies may never be developed and could bring new risks.
“This is a very responsible report,” said Professor Andrew Watson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Exeter who was not part of the IPCC team. He said there were economic and social risks in transforming the energy system to cut carbon. “However, there are even bigger risks if we do nothing and rely exclusively on being able to ride out climate change and adapt to it.”
Environmental campaign groups, which have previously criticised the IPCC for being too conservative, welcomed the new report. WWF’s Samantha Smith said: “The IPCC report makes clear that acting on emissions now is affordable, but delaying further increases the costs. It is a super strong signal to [fossil fuel] investors: they can no longer say they did not know the risks.”
Kaisa Kosonen, at Greenpeace International, said: “Renewable energy is unstoppable. It’s becoming bigger, better and cheaper every day. Dirty energy industries are sure to put up a fight but it’s only a question of time before public pressure and economics dictate that they either change or go out of business.”