Nature and Biodiversity

A call for zero emissions

Angel Gurría
President, Paris Peace Forum
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Our leaders must get to grips with the huge risk that carbon dioxide emissions pose to the economy and the environment. As we know, carbon dioxide is a long-lived gas. It hangs around. Of every tonne of CO2 emitted this year, some will still be around thousands of years from now. Even small ongoing emissions will continue to add to the atmospheric concentration.

This is already having a serious environmental impact.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 report finds it extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of global warming since the mid-20th century. Many countries are taking these findings seriously. However, mounting evidence suggests that a stronger approach is needed.

At the 16th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico, countries agreed to limit the increase in global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. However, UNEP estimates that country pledges to reduce emissions by 2020 get us only between a quarter and half way to our goal of maintaining a two degree ceiling on the global average temperature increase.

This is why I am making a strong call for governments to put us on a pathway to achieve zero net emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the second half of this century. Unlike the financial crisis, we do not have a “climate bailout” option up our sleeve. Nothing short of a transformation of the energy economy will suffice. But we face significant obstacles towards meeting this goal.

Ending our reliance on fossil fuels was never going to be easy. Two-thirds of electricity generation and nearly 95% of the energy consumed by the world’s transport systems relies on fossil fuels.

Several factors compound the challenge of weaning ourselves off this energy source. First, we have recently moved from a world of threatened scarcity to one of potential abundance, due to the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel deposits such as shale gas in the United States. Second, investments in carbon intensive technologies remain more profitable and attractive than those in low-carbon technologies, in many cases. Third, oil and gas rents account for a considerable share of total government revenue in many countries. Given this “carbon entanglement”, it is not surprising that cash-strapped governments worldwide are hoping to find and exploit new reserves of oil and gas.

There is currently a credibility gap between what governments are saying about climate change and the policies they have in place. Most businesses do not take governments seriously when it comes to climate, primarily because many governments have inconsistent and incoherent policies and then often keep changing them, sometimes retroactively. This makes businesses reluctant to invest in greener technologies.

I propose the following action agenda to reverse this trend.

Action 1: Put a price on carbon. This can be done through a carbon tax or an emissions trading system (ETS). Here, governments have made important progress, with more than 40 countries having implemented some form of carbon tax or emission trading scheme. The “flexibility” of ETS’s makes them politically attractive, although their design and implementation can be improved. However, not all governments have shied away from explicit carbon taxes. There are some strong success stories of introducing carbon taxes smoothly and incrementally over time.

Action 2: Reform fossil fuel subsidies. We have to reconsider our approach to subsidies. The OECD recently inventoried support to fossil fuel consumption and production in our Member Countries. The support we uncovered is in the range of US$ 55-90 billion per year. This is in addition to the US$ 544 billion provided as subsidies to fossil fuel consumers in developing and emerging economies estimated by the IEA. Urgent reform is needed in all countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies that encourage carbon emissions. While the subsidies are often used to fight poverty, their poor targeting makes them an inefficient way of achieving this goal. Fossil fuel already has a huge advantage as the energy resource of choice. It doesn’t need more help.

Action 3: Address incoherent and inconsistent policies. Governments need to stand back and consider the entire range of signals they are sending to consumers, producers and investors. A key question is whether non-fossil energy investments can currently compete with fossil fuels in terms of their risk-return profile with the policy settings in place domestically and internationally. To help get a consistent picture and to compare country’ performances, carbon pricing and climate policies will soon be a key element of our OECD Economic Surveys. Thus, by mid-2015 we will have a good idea of the progress and remaining challenges in both OECD countries and key emerging economy partners.

The actions outlined above will help to create a clear, long-term signal that the price of emissions will only go one way – up – and put us on a trajectory towards zero emissions. The transition to a zero emissions economy will not be costless, and governments must be frank about the cost of the transformation. But building a post-carbon world will offer some incredibly exciting economic opportunities.

At the same time, inaction also entails huge consequences. For instance, Hurricane Sandy cost the US about 0.5% of the country’s GDP. Recent analysis suggests that the annual costs to deal with flood exposure in coastal cities may increase to over US$ 50 billion by 2050. Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines, was a stark reminder that developing countries are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

We are on a collision course with nature. Now is the time for us to take bold decisions. Cherry-picking a few easy measures will not do the trick. There has to be progress on every front, particularly with respect to carbon pricing. I feel confident that leaders will rise to this challenge with a stronger commitment to tackle climate change and seize the economic opportunities that a post-carbon world has to offer.

Angel Gurría is Secretary-General of the OECD. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. This article is co-published on OECD Insights.

Image: A gas fired power station is seen on the outskirts of Minsk. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

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