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Environment—Act Now or Face Costly Consequences, Warns OECD

Energy

United Nations Environment Programme

As countries struggle with the immediate challenges of stretched public finances and high unemployment, they must not neglect the longer term. Action needs to be taken now to prevent irreversible damage to the environment.

"Greener sources of growth can help governments today as they tackle these pressing challenges. Greening agriculture, water and energy supply and manufacturing will be critical by 2050 to meet the needs of over 9 billion people," said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

The OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction, presents the latest projections of socio-economic trends over the next four decades, and their implications for four key areas of concern—climate changebiodiversitywater and the health impacts of environmental pollution. Despite the recent recession, the global economy is projected to nearly quadruple to 2050. Rising living standards will be accompanied by ever growing demands for energy, food and natural resources—and more pollution.

The costs of inaction could be colossal, both in economic and human terms. Without new policies:

  • World energy demand in 2050 will be 80 percent higher, with most of the growth to come from emerging economies (for North America about +15 percent, for OECD Europe +28 percent, for Japan +2.5, for Mexico +112 percent) and still 85 percent reliant on fossil fuel-based energy. This could lead to a 50 percent increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally and worsening air pollution.
  • Urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation. The number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate air pollutants leading to respiratory failure could double from current levels to 3.6 million every year globally, with most occurring in China and India. Because of their ageing and urbanised populations, OECD countries are likely to have one of the highest rate of premature death from ground-level ozone in 2050, second only to India. 

Premature deaths from ground-level ozone: Number of deaths per million inhabitants 

 Source: OECD (2012), OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050; Baseline, output from IMAGE suite of models.

  • On land, global biodiversity is projected to decline by a further 10 percent, with significant losses in Asia, Europe and Southern Africa. Areas of mature forests are projected to shrink by 13 percent. About one-third of biodiversity in rivers and lakes worldwide has already been lost, and further losses are projected to 2050. 
  • Global water demand will increase by some 55 percent, due to growing demand from manufacturing (+400 percent), thermal power plants (+140 percent) and domestic use (+130 percent). These competing demands will put water use by farmers at risk. 2.3 billion more people than today—more than 40 percent of the global population—will be living in river basins under severe water stress, especially in North and South Africa, and South and Central Asia.

These projections highlight the urgent need for new thinking. Failing that, the erosion of our environmental capital will increase the risk of irreversible changes that could jeopardise two centuries of rising living standards.

"We have already witnessed the collapse of some fisheries due to overfishing, with significant impacts on coastal communities, and severe water shortages are a looming threat to agriculture. These enormous environmental challenges cannot be addressed in isolation. They must be managed in the context of other global challenges, such as food and energy security, and poverty alleviation," says Gurría.

Well-designed policies to tackle environmental problems can also help to address other environmental challenges, and contribute to growth and development. Tackling local air pollution contributes not only to cutting GHG emissions but also to reducing the economic burden of chronic and costly health problems. Moreover, climate policies help protect biodiversity, for example by reducing emissions from deforestation.

To avert the grim future painted by the Environmental Outlook to 2050, the report recommends a cocktail of policy solutions—using environmental taxes and emissions trading schemes to make pollution more costly than greener alternatives; valuing and pricing natural assets and ecosystem services like clean air, water and biodiversity for their true worth; removing environmentally harmful subsidies to fossil fuels or wasteful irrigation schemes; and encouraging green innovation by making polluting production and consumption modes more expensive while providing public support for basic R&D.

Green growth policies are already in place in many countries. For example, Mexico's new pilot programme gives direct cash transfers to farmers instead of subsidising the electricity they use to pump irrigation water, thus removing the price distortion that encouraged over-use of groundwater. The UK government has earmarked GBP 3 billion for the new UK Green Investment Bank; this should leverage an additional GBP 15 billion of private investment in green energy and recycling by 2015. The U.S. government has been working to phase out preferential tax provisions worth about USD 4 billion per annum that continue to support the production of fossil energy. Capitalising on its knowledge-base and environmental technologies, city of Kitakyushu in Japan is working with businesses to enhance its competitiveness as a "green city" for low-carbon growth. Governments, businesses, consumers all have a part to play to move towards greener growth. 

Click here to see more projections in the Environmental Outlook to 2050.

For more information, click here.

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