Saturday, February 1, 2014

Emissions: cut or pay

Some of the debates at the global Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change, COP 19, in Poland last year were dominated by the Philippines storm disaster, sometimes seen as at least partly climate change related, and by the prospect of compensation being sought by victims of major climate change related events in future. But who to sue? A new report list 90 companies who produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1751 and 2010. They include big coal and oil companies. Some may be feeling bit nervous. Litigation may have its merits, but it mostly earns lawyers fat fees; what we really need is changed policies for the future-though fear of litigation may lead to that.  But see the Onion’s satirical take on it: we are all responsible

At the COP in Warsaw, an ‘international mechanism for loss and damage’ was agreed, but who knows what that means in practice. A perhaps more positive line was offered by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), emphasing proactive and retargeted investment, in a context where, UNEP says, annual subsidies for fossil fuel have neared £600bn, 10 times more than for renewables. We need a change. See:

The potential for a new climate deal at the COP in Paris in 2015, for 2020 and beyond, is still alive, even after what Greenpeace called the ‘bitter and divisive conference in Warsaw, which the Polish hosts tried to run as a showcase for the coal industry’. Although China, India,Venezuela and several other developing countries wanted to stay with the now lapsed Kyoto formula, under which only developed countries were mandated to make carbon cuts, agreement was reached that all countries would submit carbon reduction targets to the next COP. However, there was no agreement on their legal status, or on the level of aid each of  the developed countries should be required to offer to compensate for their historical emissions. A global sum of £100bn p.a by 2020 has been proposed. It’s not as if the perpetrators cannot afford it. A report from the Overseas Development Institute says that the 11 richest high-carbon countries provided a subsidy of $7 for every tonne of greenhouse gas emitted from fossil fuel combustion in 2011

Some radical reallocation is needed.  On way ahead was offered by the UN ‘Sustainable energy for all’ initiative.  The World Bank and United Nations have appealed for billions of dollars to provide electricity for the poorest nations. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said $600-$800 bn a year will be needed to meet the campaign target of universal access to electricity, doubling energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030. In some countries, only 10% of the population has electricity. Kim said the World Bank is preparing energy plans for 42 countries. But he added ‘We don't do nuclear energy’, explaining that ‘Nuclear power from country to country is an extremely political issue. The World Bank Group does not engage in providing support for nuclear power. We think that this is an extremely difficult conversation that every country is continuing to have. And because we are really not in that business our focus is on finding ways of working in hydro electric power in geo-thermal, in solar, in wind’. Source: AFP/Google.

That’s very much in line with what the World Energy Council now sees as the way ahead. Its latest report says ‘No renaissance of nuclear energy is anticipated.’ While in terms of total primary energy, the share of renewable energy sources globally will increase from around 15% in 2010 to 20-30% in 2050, it thinks nuclear energy will only contribute 4-11% of total primary energy supply 2050– compared to 6% in 2010. But even with renewables supply perhaps up to 48% of global electricity by 2050, that still means a lot of fossil fuel would be used, which is why it is very keen to promote energy saving, along with CCS, in addition to renewables. 

However there is a way to go and it is getting ever more urgent. After reviewing a large number of new studies, UNEP warned it might not be possible to tackle climate if the world waits until 2020 since it will be ‘locked in’ to fossil fuel-based infrastructure, and energy saving opportunities will have been lost. It called on governments to step up action to prevent catastrophic climate change. But we seem instead just to get excuses and special pleading about the costs of phasing out fossil fuels and using renewables. It understandable then that some see cash raids on those responsible as a next step. Nevertheless, UNEP does also offer some other options. For example, it says simply tightening up the rules governing pledges in the climate negotiations could narrow the gap by about 1-2 GtCO2e, while if countries implement the maximum reductions already pledged without conditions could narrow it by 2-3 GtCO2e’.  A new report from the International Institute for Environment and Development also offers strategies for socially equitable and inclusive paths to sustainability:
We are not short of advice, analysis and proposals. What we now need is action. One practical approach is divestment- withdrawl of support for undesirable projects by investors, as promoted by American environmental activist Bill McKibben. So far the main focus has been on endowmement links by schools, colleges and universities. But it could spread. For an interesting overview see: