OECD environmental study paints ‘grim’ picture of 2050

A 50% increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, an 85% global dependence on fossil fuels, a 400% increase in water demand from manufacturing and urban air pollution to be the number one environmental cause of premature death... the OECD predictions for 2050 make stark reading.

The resounding message from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report ‘Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction’published today (March 15), is that Governments worldwide must act now to prevent irreversible environmental damage and protect diminishing natural resources – or face rising pollution levels, water scarcity and loss of life.

As part of the study, four key areas of concern were analysed – climate change, biodiversity, water and the health impacts of environmental pollution – to determine the cost of inaction over the next four decades as it considers what would happen to the world if “we just stuck” with today’s policies.

Outlining the findings, OECD environment directorate director Simon Upton told reporters the paper is a “very grim report which suggests we are not steering in the right direction in many areas”.
He warns that governments “can’t pick and choose” which areas to focus on, arguing a full agenda for policy is needed. This , he says is because the four areas are interrelated and as such policies must consider the impact changes will have as a whole.

Focusing on world energy demand the report suggests that without new policies that by 2050, demand will be some 80% higher, with most of this growth coming from emerging economies, with 85% of countries remaining reliant on fossil fuel based energy.

The report also finds that 80% of global emissions – up to 2020 – have already been “locked into” the energy system. This, according to Upton is because governments have failed to deliver polices which challenge this.

However, Upton says the cost of action is “still affordable”, although he says “not if governments delay”. The report estimates that the cost of “doing nothing” to mitigate the impact of climate change could add as much as 50% to government budgets, as well as being catastrophic to the environment.

As a result, it predicts a 50% increase in greenhouse gases (GHG) globally, which it says will have a detrimental impact on air quality and the health of urban populations. By 2050 it predicts that as much as 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, which in line with population growth will place serious demands on natural resources.

Furthermore, urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of premature death by 2050 – just ahead of water pollution and sanitation. China and India are forecast to experience the highest levels of air pollution related deaths.

Water scarcity and quality will become another pressing issue for government’s, with global water demand predicted to increase by 55%, with competition between industries growing. In particular water demand from manufacturing is expected to rise 400%. Energy production is also likely to be affected as power station water demand increases 140% – as Upton notes “do a bad job in energy and it will hit you in water or biodiversity”.

These competing demands are expected to place farming at risk as food producers work to keep up with population growth of 2.3bn by 2050 – a 40% increase on current global population.

To counter this, the OECD report says that water needs to be seen as an “essential driver of green growth” and calls for water management policies to be introduced that protect ecosystems and water quality.

In addition, Upton said businesses must also include sustainability and resource efficiency strategies into their business plans in order to stay in business, saying “industries that read those signals and take action put themselves in the lead”.

The announcement ends with a call for OECD governments to take the lead in implementation of green policies which place higher taxes on pollution and remove fossil fuel subsidies, as well as tackling water stress.

Carys Matthews

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