Natural environment  |  Publications  |  29.05.2012

OECD environmental outlook to 2050: the consequences of inaction

Time is running out to take all the necessary measures to provide for a further 2 billion people and for a world economy which is projected to nearly quadruple by 2050, argues the OECD. 

Focusing on four urgent areas – climate change, biodiversity, water and the health impacts of pollution – this OECD report alerts about the urgency to take action at the global level in order to avoid significant costs of inaction, both in economic and human terms. Only a few weeks before the RIO+20 Summit will be held, this warning message on the consequences of inaction should be taken into account. 

The text below is adapted from the summary of the report.

What could the environment look like in 2050?

This outlook from the OECD presents a “baseline” scenario for the “future of the environment”, which is based on a combination of the absence of new environmentally-friendly policies and the continuing socioeconomic trends. Among the main challenges the environment will face by 2050, the increase of the Earth’s population from 7 billion to over 9 billion, combined with a relative growth of the world economy, a significant population ageing, and the perspective of nearly 70% of the world’s population living in urban areas by 2050, will lead to a growing demand for natural resources and energy (+80% by 2050, including a 85% share of fossil-fuel based energy). Thus the international commitments taken in the field of pollution abatement and resource efficiency will not be sufficient to make up for the pressures on the environment from population growth and rising living standards.

What if we don’t act now?

Without more ambitious policies, the OECD forecasts that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will increase by 50% by 2050, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions. Therefore international commitments will not be enough to prevent the global average temperature from exceeding the 2°C raise threshold, unless very rapid and costly emission reductions are realised after 2020. Terrestrial biodiversity is projected to decrease by a further 10% by 2050. Furthermore global water demand is projected to increase by some 55% between 2012 and 2050, due to growing demand from manufacturing (+400%), thermal electricity generation (+140%) and domestic use (+130%). More than 240 million people are therefore expected to be without an access to an improved water source (although not necessarily safe water for human consumption) by 2050. Last but not least, air pollution is set to become the world’s top environmental cause of premature mortality, especially in China and India.

It is now urgent to take the necessary measures

The OECD clearly states that « natural systems have “tipping points” beyond which damaging change becomes irreversible (e.g. species loss, climate change, groundwater depletion, land degradation). Is it too late to do anything though? Definitely not, argues the OECD! It is now time to take some ambitious policies, such as:

  • a global carbon price could reduce GHG emissions by nearly 70% in  2050 compared to the “baseline scenario”. Though it would slow economic growth by 0.2 percentage points per year on average, it is nothing compared to the potential cost of inaction on climate change, which some estimate could be as high as 14% of average world consumption per capita;
  • ending support to fossil fuel production and use, which  amounted to between USD 45-75 billion per annum in recent years in OECD countries, giving a largely underestimated price to natural resources and pollution; 
  • investing in safe water and sanitation in developing countries can yield benefit-to-cost ratios as high as 7 to 1.
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