OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: We’re all doomed

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

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.

Useful links

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.

The Race for the Green House

During the “space race”, as we called it back in the Atomic Age, US inventor Paul C. Fisher developed a pen with a gas-pressurised cartridge that he claimed could write in zero gravity. NASA bought them, while the Russians used pencils. A reminder that the best solutions don’t have to be high tech or complicated.

I thought about this on seeing Greening Household Behaviour: The Role of Public Policy, published today by the OECD. Years ago, a Swedish collective housing project was looking for ways to cut water heating bills. Everything failed, until somebody came up with the winner. Every household was given a free plastic basin for the washing up, and they stopped letting the hot water run when doing the dishes.

The OECD book suggests an even more obvious solution: charge people for what they use. Households charged for the volume of water used consume 20% less than those who aren’t charged. The book also says that charging by volume of garbage collected encourages people to generate less waste than charging by weight.

As well as water and waste, the authors surveyed 10,000 people across 10 OECD countries on energy use, transport, and organic food consumption.

And as well as demand-side instruments like charging, they looked at the impact of information and supply-side measures. The results suggest that money doesn’t explain everything, and behaviour can be influenced by a sense of civic duty.

There are wide variations by gender, income, education and other factors though. For instance, Mexicans and Koreans worry more about their environment than people in the Netherlands.  And many Australians and Norwegians say their own actions can make a difference.

In line with other surveys, respondents generally seem reluctant to pay more to use green energies like solar or wind, and household demand for environmental quality is unlikely to be enough to reach ambitious policy objectives.

Encouraging changes in the supply of greener energy, transport and other goods and services is one reason public policy has a role. Many of the proposed solutions would hit poorer people disproportionately, charging being the most obvious example, so any policy initiatives have to consider aspects other than the immediate goal as well.

This book is part of a longer exercise. The 2011 round of the OECD Household Survey will identify changes in people’s attitudes and behaviour towards the environment, and examine ways to promote green growth and the development of a low-carbon economy.

Useful links

OECD work on the environment

OECD work on green growth

Imagining the unimaginable

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY.

Coalmines don’t leak, but there are few other ways that the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Virginia in April differs from that of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico just a month later.

The tragedy is the same.  Men went to work on the day of the disaster in the usual way they set out for their well-known tasks on any day.  Then a terrible thing happened that got very quickly of their control.  A total of thirty-nine people lost their lives; 28 at Upper Big Branch, 11 in the Gulf of Mexico.  This is not a large number in comparison to other industrial accidents but all loss of life is tragic especially when it is life cut short.  It seems out of order.  Fathers will now outlive sons.  The norms reversed.  In a sense that is what a disaster is; our world turned upside down.  In that there is no difference between coalmine and an oilrig.

It is far too easy to point out that in both cases the objectives were the same – the mining of a fossil fuel to provide cheap energy for economic growth in the US. Coal and oil are almost the same chemically.  Coal is more or less pure carbon, oil has hydrogen atoms as well; hence we call oil a hydrocarbon.  Different processes in the Earth create them — coal by the transformation of ancient land plants like ferns, oil from the transformation of microscopic marine organism with unfamiliar names like dinoflagelates.  Both are actually still being formed in the Earth but the rate of transformation is very slow and our rate of use is very high and so we call them non-renewable.  It’s a comparative statement but a fair one.

The ready availability of coal in Britain made the industrial revolution possible.  The unavailability of coal in most of Africa may have made an industrial revolution in that continent impossible and doomed it to poverty.  There is nowhere in the world that has achieved progress absent cheap abundant energy.   We need cheap energy to prosper; coal and oil provide it.  The only way to get access is to mine it, either through a drill pipe or an excavation.  Both forms of mining have always been and remain very risky, and countless people have died throughout the world in mining disasters.  We need the fuels so we take the risks.  Mining is not the most dangerous profession; agriculture and fishing have higher worker death rates in the US.  We need to farm and fish so we take the risks that go with farming and fishing.

The two disasters are similar in very unsettling ways.   To many they seem to speak of our addiction to fossil fuel.  Like a drug addict they suggest we will go to any lengths and take any risk necessary to get the substance we crave.  If drugs ruin an addict’s health, no matter; if fossil fuel addiction ruins the planet, that’s no matter either.  Both of these disasters can be seen as one more example of our reckless drive for cheap energy that is rooted in a hedonistic desire for greater material wellbeing.

Just over 25 years ago the worst industrial accident of modern times occurred in the small town of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh north central India.  Vast quantities of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate were released from a chemical plant.  Generally referred to as the Bhopal Disaster the incident caused deaths estimated by official government sources to be a precise 2,259 but maybe as many as 16,000 by including deaths that occurred immediately plus those that happened subsequently from extended health effects.  Nothing was exactly being mined at Bhopal, something like the opposite was taking place.  The plant was producing fertilizers needed to catalyze the so-called Green Revolution, a revolution that turned agriculture in India around so that the country is now more than self-sufficient in food it is a net exporter.  Union Carbide, the company that owned the plant could hardly be accused of a rash drive to satiate an obscene drive for luxury living, it was helping to remove the specter of starvation from India.  Yet the criticisms are the same.  The company was accused of putting profits ahead of safety.  And maybe they did.  When poor people are the ones most likely harmed we care a lot less.  Writing in The Observer John Vidal has pointed out that oil leaks, spills and fires every year in the Nigerian Delta region dwarf the scale of the Deepwater Horizon in oil spilt and lives and livelihoods lost.  Nigeria is very far away and is none of our business while the Gulf of Mexico is very nearby and is very much our business.

Construction cranes topple while building skyscrapers, trains collide all over the world, nuclear power plants melt down, space craft explode, unsinkable ships collide with icebergs and sink.  We think of these as disasters because a lot of people die all at once or in a very spectacular way but, as everyone knows road accident fatalities far outweigh those from disasters but they happen one or a few at a time so we think of them quite differently, and never describe them as disasters.  Even though they happen all the time and we know how they happen we cant prevent them.

No one could imagine the Titanic sinking.  No one sounded a warning.  No one imaged the space shuttle exploding.  It is hard for me even to imagine being in a car accident, let alone a plane crash though every one that happens receives graphic media coverage. I am not going to apologize for BP but it is hard to imagine the unimaginable.  BP did the things that the oil industry knows how to do.  They put a blowout preventer on the well.  That’s what everyone does and blowout preventers usually work.  It is hard to imagine a blowout preventer not working.  They are using everything the industry knows how to do to stop the flow after the preventer failed.  No one has had any better ideas so far.

The oil leak in the Gulf is a new and terrible version of an old story.  We take preventive actions against small to medium sized problems because we are familiar with them and we know what to do.  In earthquake prone areas we strengthen our houses against minor events but no one tries to build to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, first because it is almost impossible and tremendously costly to do and second because these huge events are hard to imagine.  Our roads and road rules prevent a lot of accidents but cannot prevent the unimaginable tragedy of a person getting drunk and driving the wrong way on a freeway with a car full of children.  It is not astonishing that the levees failed in New Orleans and the Army Corps of Engineers has been rightly criticized for its lack of attention to their state of repair, but it was hard to imagine the failures that occurred.

As an industrial accident what happened in the Gulf is principally distinguished by the way continues on.  At Upper Big Branch coal gases exploded, coal miners died, the mine was shut down, and families continue to grieve.  But the coalmine disaster is over.  The Titanic sank, many drowned, some survived and then it was over.  The Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, caught fire and collapsed but the disaster of the leak continues. What happened in the Gulf is not entirely without precedent.  There is a long history of oilrig failures some of which have lead to extended leakage taking months to stop.  Magnitude 9 earthquakes have occurred.  Category 5 hurricanes actually make landfall fairly often.

I don’t know why we don’t properly prepare and many people have pondered the question without coming to a good answer.  Maybe it is that we simply cannot prepare for things that are so terrible just because of their scale.  They are just too big to prepare for.

Or maybe it is that we are a breed of risk-takers and that is a trait that has, for the most part served us well.  The exploration and settlement of new lands is risky.  Starting a new business is risky.  Every step in human progress has required taking risks.  Many people will say that these disasters happen because we don’t properly calculate the risks.  I wonder if instead it is that we do more or less know the risks and are willing to take them.  We may not be able to calculate a probability density function but to say we are unaware of the risks is wrong in my view.  We can’t imagine exactly what might happen but no one working on an oilrig could possibly think they we working in a risk free environment or that the consequences of a accident could not be catastrophic.  I don’t think it is a manic drive for profits or an addiction to oil or a callous disregard for people or pelicans.  I think that those who died on the rig were killed by the essential hubris of our industrial society.

We have to use the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon to teach us how to avoid another similar catastrophe.  We can even try to imagine another unimaginable event.  We need to be smarter and more careful. The continuing leak is a daily reminder.  We should be much less reckless.  But we cannot and should not try to engineer our hubris away.  We need it and would be the lesser without it.

OECD Forum 2010: Preserving scarce resources

Green growth has been one of the big issues of this year’s OECD Forum, but a session on Thursday afternoon has been taking an even more focused look at the environment. Under the heading “Preserving scarce resources”, speakers have been discussing some of the many ways in which resources like water, clean air and forests can be protected.

As several speakers have stated, most of us are not really aware of just how much of these resources we’re using. “We wear our water,” says John J. Harris, Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Waters, who has pointed out that it takes roughly 1,200 litres of water to produce a cotton shirt. According to Mr. Harris, the only part of our water usage that is not negotiable is the roughly 1.5 litres we need to drink each day to survive; after that, he says, we need to think a lot more about making better use of all the rest of the water we use both directly and indirectly.

The scale of the environmental challenge facing humanity has been underlined by several speakers. Thomas Kaissl, who leads the Green Economy Programme at WWF International, has commented that there’s a real lack of urgency in discussing these issues. For 20 years, he says, the international community has been drawing up all sorts of certification and standards, but the threats facing the environment have only grown – we urgently need to close “the gap between paper and practice”, he believes. Otherwise, he says, humanity will be like the frog in the pot who fails to realise the danger he’s in as the water comes slowly to the boil. Echoing that, moderator Simon Upton, Director of the OECD’s Environment department, has been wondering aloud how big a crisis would be needed to alert humanity to the need for action.  

Solutions? The need to encourage citizens to become active in forcing governments to take green issues seriously has been mentioned by several speakers, especially those from NGOs. There’s also been much talk about market solutions that put a price on environmental resources so as to reflect their true value. “The default value of many things we hold dear is zero,” Andrew Seidl of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says. An economist himself, he says that many in his profession instinctively favour “carrots” – or economic incentives – as a way to shape the behaviour of businesses and individuals.

But that sort of approach is seen in a less rosy light by Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Woodworkers’ International labour grouping. While he sees some benefits in market approaches, he’s warned that pricing solutions can put a premium on owning, rather than sharing, resources. And, he says, as the financial crisis has shown, markets can always fail.

So, plenty of solutions on offer, but varying views on which work best. There was, however, agreement on the need to act – and act now – to better protect environmental resources.

Useful links

 OECD work on the environment  

 OECD Insights: Sustainable Development

Revenues from green taxes have dropped despite increased use (data update – 01/07/2011)

Taxes can provide a clear incentive to reduce environmental damage. Businesses need to be convinced that innovation and investment to reduce environmental damage brings rewards. Similarly, clear and sustained price signals can provide an important incentive for households, for example to reduce their energy consumption or to increase the extent to which they recycle waste. They underpin other policy instruments such as information campaigns (e.g. on the fuel efficiency of new cars or white goods) or the wider use of ‘smart’ meters for water, gas and electricity.

The use of environmentally-related taxes, charges and emission trading schemes is spreading across OECD and emerging economies. Across OECD countries, revenues from environmentally-related taxes amount to about 1.7% of GDP, ranging from about 0.7% on average in North America to 2.5% in Europe. Over 90% of these revenues come from taxes on fuels and motor vehicles.


OECD Factbook 2010 giveaway

Factbook 2010

The OECD Factbook 2010 is out today!


The Factbook covers the entire scope of OECD work – from agriculture to youth inactivity, including economics, environment, society and quality of life.

The book is organized in “indicators”, which are double-page spreads with a definition of an economic notion on the left, in plain English, complete with known limitations, future trends, methodology information and links to further information, and, on the right, a comparison of countries, in the shape of a table and a chart.

There are over 100 such indicators in the book. This year, the special chapter is on “The crisis and beyond”.


Edmund Conway from The Daily Telegraph called this “the single best book of stats produced by any of the major economic institutions”.

The Factbook 2010 is available in a variety of formats:


I have a few of these USB keys that I would like to distribute to you, Factblog readers. Here are two ways you can win one:


good luck!