A new report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (UK) has warned that if we continue with business as usual with current global carbon emission reduction we are likely to hit 6 degrees Celsius or more of global warming towards the end of the century, overshooting the agreed upon global goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees to avoid dangerous and very extreme climate impacts.
The report is an annual analysis of the Low Carbon Economy Index devised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), measuring developed and emerging economies progress towards reducing emissions linked to economic output.
While the increase in emissions intensity in 2010 has been reversed, with only a 0.7% reduction globally in 2011, it's a fraction what is required against the international commitment to limit global warming to 2ºC. Nations agreed to the 2 degree C limit at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks and reaffirmed at succeeding talks in Cancun and Durban.
Even the voluntary targets countries submitted at Copenhagen may not be achieved by 2020. According to the report, to limit global warming to 2ºC would now mean reducing global carbon intensity by an average of 5.1% a year - a performance never achieved since 1950, when these records began.
The International Energy Agency warned in May 2011 that 2010 emissions achieved a record high, putting at risk limiting warming to 2ºC. In November 2011 the IEA said a Bold change of direction needed globally to meet climate commitments or risk an even more dangerous track, to an increase of 6°C by 2100.
Indeed a rate of 5.1% carbon intensity reduction would probably require something similar to a war-time effort to implement. And the more nations collectively dither on taking measures to reduce carbon emissions, the greater the per annum reduction required to be sustained to 2050.
The report comes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and a string of extreme weather events in the USA including the extreme drought, with academic George Lakoff and many scientists arguing that Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events.
European countries are reported to have the highest rate of decarbonisation with the
UK, Germany and France all reducing carbon intensity by over 6% in 2010-2011., but part of this result was due to the warmer winter. Emissions in the USA fell by 1.9% also helped by a mild winter and a much warmer spring in many areas, as well as increased shift from coal to shale gas and more fuel efficient vehicles present.
For Australia, the Queensland floods at the end of 2010 and start of 2011 temporarily shut down many mining operations and increased hydro-electricity resulted in a 10.9% carbon intensity reduction in 2010, but rebounded with a 6.7% increase in 2011 attributed as power stations restocking depleted stockpiles of coal. Since 2000 Australia has averaged a 1.7% intensity reduction, well short of what could be considered a 'fair share'.
Reductions in carbon intensity in China and India appears to have stalled with these countries continuing economic growth. Much of this growth is a shift in carbon intensive manufacturing from industrialised nations to developing nations to produce consumer goods for consumption in 1st world nations.
Indonesia, where deforrestation and land use change is a major cause of carbon emissions, has managed to continue economic growth but with a 5.2% fall in carbon intensity.
The report discusses the shale gas dilemma: while use of gas as a fuel halves carbon emissions, it warns that "an over-reliance on gas, particularly in emerging economies expecting high energy demand growth, could lock in the dependence on fossil fuel." Over reliance on cheap gas could undermine "investment in lower-carbon nuclear power and renewable energy." (See Carbon lock-in: social-technological inertias increasing our addiction to coal-fired energy)
The report contains a warning for business that business as usual is not an option. Carbon intensive business, particularly fossil fuel companies, are at great risk of substantial regulation with the possibility of stranded assets.
"Any investment in long-term assets or infrastructure, particularly in coastal or low-lying regions, needs to address more pessimistic scenarios. Sectors dependent on food, water, energy or ecosystem services need to scrutinise the resilience and viability of their supply chains. More carbon intensive sectors need to anticipate more invasive regulation and the possibility of stranded assets. And governments' support for vulnerable communities needs to consider more drastic actions."
The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS, removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation. This suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.
Either way, business-as-usual is not an option.
The next round of UNFCCC climate talks are scheduled for Doha - COP18 - start on Monday 26 November 2012. It remains to be seen if national delegations will bring a heightened sense of urgency to tackle the global problem of anthropogenic climate change. Extreme weather events systemically caused by climate change will continue to happen with a growing frequency and intensity.
Jonathan Grant, director, sustainability and climate change, PwC said: "The risk to business is that it faces more unpredictable and extreme weather, and disruptions to market and supply chains. Resilience will become a watch word in the boardroom - to policy responses as well as to the climate. More radical and disruptive policy reactions in the medium term could lead to high carbon assets being stranded.
"The new reality is a much more challenging future in terms of planning, financing and predictability. Even doubling our current annual rates of decarbonisation globally every year to 2050, would still lead to 6C, making governments' ambitions to limit warming to 2C appear highly unrealistic."
- PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) media release, 5 November 2012, "Business as usual is not an option" as current rates of emissions reduction point to 6C of warming - PwC Low Carbon Economy Index