While we were launching the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, a German TV crew was heading for the zoo in Limbach-Oberfrohna to film an earless rabbit, announced as the Next Big Thing after Paul the Psychic Octopus and Knut the polar bear cub. But the poor bunny turned out to be luckless too, since the cameraman stood on it and killed it. We shouldn’t try to read too much into this, but we will since it sums up so neatly the message of the latest Outlook: humans are causing serious and in some cases irreversible harm to nature.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns was prompted to think about these things when he destroyed the nest of a field mouse with his plough. The most famous part of To a mouse is when he talks about what can happen to “the best laid schemes of mice and men”. But he also regrets that “man’s dominion/Has broken Nature’s social union” justifying the ill-opinion that other creatures have of us.
One rabbit or mouse more or less may be no big deal, but the Outlook paints a depressing picture of what’s happening to life on Earth under our dominion. Terrestrial biodiversity is projected to decrease by a further 10% by 2050, with significant losses in Asia, Europe and Southern Africa. Globally, mature forest areas are projected to shrink by 13%. About one-third of global freshwater biodiversity has already been lost, and further loss is projected to 2050.
Climate change will replace agriculture as the fastest growing driver of biodiversity loss to 2050. Without a significant change in policies, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are projected to increase by 50%, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions. Global average temperature is projected to be 3C to 6C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed goal of limiting it to 2 degrees.
The GHG mitigation actions pledged by countries in the 2010 Cancún Agreements at the UN Climate Change Conference will not be enough to prevent the global average temperature from exceeding the 2C threshold, unless very rapid and costly emission reductions are realised after 2020.
Projections like these are probably familiar to most people interested in environmental issues, but other figures in the book may prove more of a shock, notably concerning health. We may be damaging the environment, but it’s killing us. Today, unsafe water kills more people than all forms of violence, but air pollution is set to become the world’s top environmental cause of premature mortality, overtaking dirty water and lack of sanitation. The number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate matter (which leads to respiratory failures) is projected to triple from just over 1 million today to nearly 3.6 million per year in 2050, with most deaths occurring in China and India.
The absolute number of premature deaths from exposure to ground-level ozone will more than double worldwide (from 385,000 to nearly 800,000). More than 40% of the world’s ozone-linked premature deaths in 2050 are expected to occur in China and India. However, OECD countries with their ageing and urbanised populations are likely to have one of the highest rates of premature death from ground-level ozone, second only to India when the figures are adjusted for population size.
The subtitle of the Outlook is “The Consequences of Inaction”, but the authors show that actions to protect the environment make economic sense too. For instance, global carbon pricing sufficient to lower GHG emissions by nearly 70% in 2050 compared to the Baseline scenario and limit GHG concentrations to 450 ppm (the level that keeps warming below 2 degrees) would slow economic growth by only 0.2 percentage points per year on average. The potential cost of inaction on climate change could be as high as 14% of average world consumption per capita.
As the international media noted, the data and trends the report sets out are grim. But the Outlook also proposes policies, and strategies for coordinating them, across all the domains it covers. The question is whether we will take the actions required. Too often we give the impression that we’re like skydivers whose only plan is to jump from the plane and hope they’ll find a parachute somewhere on the way down.
OECD Environment Ministerial Meeting 29 March to 30 March 2012
OECD Environment Ministers will meet in Paris under the theme of Making Green Growth Deliver. They will discuss future priorities for action based on the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, which makes a strong case for green growth policies.