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Little positive in OECD’s 2050 Environmental Outlook

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Our most prolific blogger, Richard Crume, highlights that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest gloomy outlook on the world’s environmental condition in 2050 could be brightened through a greater commitment to renewable energy.
Little positive in OECD’s 2050 Environmental Outlook

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a detailed look at the world’s environmental condition projected to the year 2050, and there is little good news in their report. Without major policy changes on a global scale, the report concludes that the “current growth model and the mismanagement of natural assets could ultimately undermine human development.”

The OECD acknowledges the importance of renewable energy, but without new policies directed at reducing fossil fuel consumption, renewable energy will remain a small percentage of total energy use.

Some key facts and figures from the report include the following:

  • The population of the world will increase from 7 billion today to over 9 billion by 2050.
  • Over this timeframe, world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will nearly quadruple.
  • Without new policies aimed at cutting energy use, the expanding world economy will require 80 percent more energy in 2050 than today.

With population, GDP, and energy consumption rising so dramatically, and with renewable energy remaining a small percentage of the total energy mix, the environmental impacts will be huge. Indeed, the OECD predicts that greenhouse gas emissions will increase 50 percent, particulate air pollution will lead to 3.6 million premature deaths per year, and 1.4 billion people (nearly 16 percent of the world’s population in 2050) will lack access to basic sanitation.

The report presents policy options for mitigating this looming environmental disaster, including: (1) carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes with fully auctioned permits and (2) reformed fossil fuel subsidies (avoiding negative impacts on households). According to OECD’s analysis, actions already pledged by countries in the Cancun Agreements “will not be enough to prevent the global average temperature from exceeding the 2°C threshold [an internationally agreed goal], unless very rapid and costly emission reductions are realised after 2020.”1

A disconcerting finding of the report concerns the world’s aging population: over a quarter of the population in OECD countries will be at least 65 years old in 2050, compared with 15 percent today. This will place increased demands on government sponsored support programs for older adults (for example, social security, Medicare, and Medicaid in the U.S.) at a time when proportionally fewer workers are contributing to these programs. Government support for older adults will be further strained by mid-century as the expanding senior population will require greater health care services due to increased environmental contamination and climate change-induced heat stress. Already seniors in many countries are having difficulty providing for their basic needs.2

As I approach retirement age in a few years, there is a good chance that only my ashes will remain in the year 2050. But today’s children will still be around, and they will be aghast at the legacy we have left them: over a billion people without basic sanitation, staggering loses in biodiversity and mature forest areas, air pollution a major cause of premature mortality, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations skyrocketing to 685 parts per million (ppm).3

A commitment by every nation on earth to expeditiously replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources will not solve these problems – but it will be a start.

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1The Cancun Agreements, reached on December 11, 2010, in Cancun, Mexico, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, are designed to achieve further greenhouse gas emission reductions, to help developing nations protect themselves from climate impacts, and to assist developing nations in building their own sustainable futures.

2In the U.S. today, about 35 percent of adults age 65 and older have incomes less than twice the federal poverty level, according to the National Council on Aging. At this level of income, many older adults have difficulty meeting even their most basic needs.

3The annual mean carbon dioxide concentration in 2011, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, was 391.57 ppm.

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