BANGKOK, Thailand, October 7, 2009 (ENS) – Emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas mainly responsible for global warming, could fall three percent worldwide in 2009 due to the global financial and economic crisis, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.

Presenting a special early excerpt of the World Energy Outlook 2009 at the UN climate change talks in Bangkok, IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said that would be the sharpest drop in CO2 emissions for 40 years.

The economic crisis has been good for the global climate because people have been burning less fossil fuels and investors have paused in their funding of polluting technologies, the IEA report shows.

The International Energy Agency is a Paris-based intergovernmental organization established in 1974 under the umbrella of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, whose members are the world’s largest industrial democracies.

IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka in a statement that because of the current economic downturn, by 2020, greenhouse gas emissions could be five percent lower than the IEA estimated just 12 months ago.

“This gives us a chance to make real progress towards a clean energy future, but only if the right policies are put in place promptly,” he said.

“The message is simple and stark,” Tanaka said. “If the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe. Energy is at the heart of the problem – and so must form the core of the solution.”

The IEA report shows that the economic downturn could put the global energy system on a trajectory to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 450 parts per million of CO2-equivalent, in line with an increase in global temperature of around two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is already at 385 parts per million, and it is increasing by about two ppm each year as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil, and gas, with a smaller contribution from burning of forests.

In July, leaders of the Group of Eight wealthiest nations and the 17 member Major Economies Forum agreed in principle to reduce to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.

Yvo de Boer, UN climate chief, at a press conference in Bangkok (Photo courtesy ENB)

The two degree Celsius benchmark was set in a scientific report issued in 2007 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Nobel-Prize winning panel of thousands of scientists reviews and distills the entire body of scientific literature on climate change and issues reports once every seven years.

“By reducing emissions, the financial and economic crisis has created a window of opportunity to transition the global energy system to a 450 ppm trajectory,” said UN climate chief Yvo de Boer in the preface to the new IEA report.

“This is a unique opportunity but we need to act now; delay increases the cost and drastically reduces the likelihood of stabilisation at 450 ppm ever being achieved, let alone anything below this concentration level,” wrote de Boer, who serves as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

To stabilize greenhouse gases at 450 ppm, the IEA report says the use of fossil fuels must peak before 2020. Also in that year, energy-related CO2 emissions must be just six percent higher than they were in 2007.

Relative to an IEA “Reference Scenario” of current policies, emissions in 2020 would need to be reduced by 3.8 gigatonnes worldwide to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million.

Coal-fired power plant in China’s Hunan Province (Photo by Hunan Datang Xianyi Technology Co.)

The IAE’s “450 Scenario” shows 1.6 gigatonnes of this reduction occurring in OECD countries.

Policies and measures in China, already being considered by the Chinese government, would account for one gigatonne of emissions reductions, more than anywhere else. “This underlines the leading role China will play in the global combat against climate change,” said Tanaka.

“The global economy does not suffer much from the costs incurred under a 450 scenario, wrote de Boer. “Countries experiencing high rates of economic growth continue to do so. While the export revenues of oil producing countries are lower than for the Reference Scenario, they are four times higher than in the past.”

“The biggest challenge will be to ensure there is funding to back this energy transformation, with substantial support for developing countries,” Tanaka said.

Investments in the energy sector totaling US$10 trillion will be necessary between 2010 and 2030, said Tanaka, but these investments would be largely offset by fuel savings in industry, transport and buildings.

“The IEA 450 scenario is the energy pathway to green growth. Yet we need to act urgently and now,” Tanaka warned. “Every year of delay adds an extra US$500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector.”

While some delegates in Bangkok saw the IEA report as a cause for optimism, others worried that stabilizing CO2 emissions at 450 ppm may not be adequate to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

At the 2008 UN climate talks in Poznan, Poland, youth from 20 countries created the shape of a human form holding the 350 ppm target over a threatened small island. (Photo by John Quigley courtesy 350.org)

Low-lying island nations and many developing countries say that CO2 concentrations must be kept below 350 ppm and global temperature increases must be kept as far below 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible to limit the anticipated devastating effects of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable countries.

A group of 80 countries, including the Alliance of Small Island States and the Group of Least Developed Countries, joined in September to propose that global emissions should peak by 2015 at the latest, and decrease thereafter to at least 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

In the United States, NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen has been saying for years that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350 ppm.

Hansen was the lead author of a study published last December in “Open Atmospheric Science Journal” by a group of 10 scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and France suggesting that global policies should have an initial target for atmospheric CO2 of 350 ppm.

Climate activists have set October 24 as an international day of climate action to raise public awareness of the need for an international climate treaty that would set a goal for atmospheric CO2 of 350 ppm.

Organizers are asking people around the world to hold an action on October 24 incorporating the number 350 at an iconic place in their community, and then upload a photo of their event to 350.org website. To date, 1,821 actions are planned in 143 countries.

The World Energy Outlook 2009 excerpt, entitled “How the Energy Sector Can Deliver on a Climate Agreement in Copenhagen,” sets out, for key countries and regions – including the United States, Japan, the European Union, Russia, China and India – the energy transformation that each might undertake, sector by sector, if the world were to adopt a 450 ppm trajectory.

It also describes the current trends in energy use and emissions in a fully updated Reference Scenario, detailing the implications of current policies and taking into account the global financial and economic crisis.

The entire World Energy Outlook 2009 will be issued in London on November 10,and contains more climate analysis than is presented in the excerpt. It analyses the international financial flows and mechanisms that might underpin a post-2012 climate change agreement that world governments will attempt to finalize in Copenhagen in December.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.