LONDON - The world may not be able to limit global temperature rise to safe levels if new international climate action is not taken by 2017, as so many fossil fuel power plants and factories are being built, the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday.
If the world is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius — thought to be the minimum safety level before devastating effects of climate change set in — emission volumes must not have more than 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide.
With emissions already running at 390 ppm of CO2, time is running out for action.
Existing energy infrastructure is already releasing 80 percent of emissions allowed under that scenario, the IEA warned in its World Energy Outlook.
Four fifths of total energy-related carbon emissions permissible by 2035 to limit warming are already accounted for by existing power plants, buildings and factories, it said.
"As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the "lock-in" of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals," said Fatih Birol, IEA's chief economist.
The warning comes just a few weeks before a international negotiators gather in South Africa to try and work on a new global pact to fight global warming.
Expectations are low to deliver a binding deal this year. The European Union is pushing for a deal by 2015 but some other countries have been accused of delaying a pact until 2018 or 2020.
"If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed (...) up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly."
"Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions," the report added.
Energy efficiency improvements would need to account for half of additional emissions reductions required, the IEA said.
In May, the IEA said global CO2 emissions hit their highest level ever in 2010, mainly driven by booming coal-reliant economies.
If new climate policies are implemented cautiously, cumulative CO2 emissions over the next 25 years would amount to three quarters of the total from the last 100 years, the IEA said.
This would lead to a long-term average temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius. If new policies are not implemented, the world is on a "dangerous track" to a 6 degree rise.
The U.N.'s aim of giving everyone in the world access to modern energy by 2030 would require $48 billion of investment — or 3 percent of total energy investment to 2030 — compared to $9 billion in 2009, the IEA said.
"Universal access by 2030 would increase global demand for fossil fuels and related CO2 emissions by less than 1 percent, a trivial amount in relation to the contribution made to human development and welfare," the report added.
The IEA also forecast that the share of renewables from non-hydro sources in power generation will increase to 15 percent in 2035 from 3 percent in 2009, mainly supported by subsidies which should rise nearly five times to $180 billion.
The agency sees carbon capture and storage as a key technology which could account for 18 percent of emissions savings under the 2 degree limit scenario.
However, if commercial scale CCS is delayed by ten years to 2030, it would add $1.1 trillion to the cost of limiting global temperatures to safe levels, the report said.
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)