Friday, January 1, 2016

COP21 and Renewables

 Some said the COP 21 Paris climate deal was a great triumph, others were less sure. But most saw it as opening up the way for renewables. It certainly should, despite the lack of binding national targets. Pressure to divest from coal projects will grow. However, while the COP 21 agreement acknowledges ‘the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy’, as the World Nuclear Association noted, it does not otherwise make reference to any specific energy technology.  So on the supply side we may see a scrabble for slots between renewables and nuclear, along with energy efficiency on the demand side, possibly within this sort of Deep Decarbonisation framework:          
Though there are other options. As the Financial Times put it ‘The 1.5C upper limit is likely to be breached in the coming decades but could possibly be regained later in the century through large-scale net negative emissions achieved via biological and geological carbon storage’. FT 14/12/15

Some look to biochar and new farming practices to improve carbon retention in soil, and on the supply side, Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), although the UK governments decision to abandon the £1bn CCS competition will have put that even further into the future. It was anyway an outsider option, not loved by all greens. CCS is often seen as just an expensive way to keep using fossil fuel, with a new set of risks (sudden CO2 release), but some felt that it might be condoned as a step to BECCS. Or could we just go straight to BECCS? No to both say Biofuelwatch!

DECC says that, despite the cuts to support for PV solar and on-shore wind, UK will meet its 2020 renewable electricity target. We will see.  But few are confident about it meeting the overall 15% by 2020 renewable energy target- progress on heat and transport has been slow.  Moreover, after 2020 then what?  The 2020 targets were imposed on the UK (and other EU members) by the EU Renewables Directive, but the UK and others have managed to resist any post-2020 national renewable targets being set. It’s simply left up to each county to decide how to meet the EU 2030 emissions targets, as with the new COP21 ‘aspirations’. DECC has said that it will continue to support renewables beyond 2020, including up to 10GW of new offshore wind, if the price falls, but DECC’s main focus seem to be to nuclear, apparently regardless of the price.  And that could be copied elsewhere in the EU- Hungary and Romania want new nuclear plants!  Judging by the disasters with the EPR nuclear plant construction programme so far (long overdue and massively over-budget) it could all come horribly unstuck. In which case global geo-engineering will no doubt then be highlighted as an emergency measure, with all sorts of risks associated with that. Surely rather than blocking out sunshine with aerosols injected into the atmosphere or vast mirrors orbiting in space, we should be using it!

The COP 21 agreement still has to be ratified by a majority of countries (the 55 largest energy users/emitters) and nothing much may happen until then. Indeed it seems that the EU will wait until the first of the proposed 5 year reviews to see if it will adopt to 40% emission reduction target it offered if other countries backed similar targets. Some now have, but, with no mandatory national targets, just the loose National plans and proposals submitted to COP21, there is some wriggle room.

Writing in the Financial Times (15 Dec), Martin Wolf was hopeful that peer pressure would suffice: ‘With every body committed to producing a plan (because everybody agrees the challenge is important), it will be far more difficult for any country to argue that failure to meet its promises does not matter.’ It will be interesting to see what the UK comes up with.

Looking globally, this thoughtful follow-up proposal seems sensible:
Although it worries that, if we push ahead rapidly with building the renewable system we may run out of fossil energy fast, unless it’s rationed and prioitised for that purpose!
‘We may be entering a period of fossil fuel triage. Rather than allocating fossil fuels simply on a market basis (those who pay for them get them), it may be fairer, especially to lower-income citizens, for government (with wartime powers) to allocate fuels purposefully based on the strategic importance of the societal sectors that depend on them, and on the relative ease and timeliness of transitioning those sectors to renewable substitutes. Agriculture, for example, might be deemed the highest priority for continued fossil fuel allocations, with commercial air travel assuming a far lower priority. Perhaps we need not just a price on carbon, but different prices for different uses’.

Well maybe, but perhaps a more urgent problem is the attempt to slow down renewables by cutting  back on support systems. Dr David Toke says that the EU’s move away from Feed In Tariffs to competitive auctions may not actually cuts cost, but might cut capacity growth.  
And this excellent review of the EU Energy Transition pulls no punches on what is blocking it:

None of these issue really surfaced at COP 21, which was focused on setting the big picture,  maybe rightly. Some said it did very well:  Though others didn’t agree: it allows many countries to carry on expanding emissions and has no binding national targets: But it wasn’t as irrelevant as the dreaded ever-contrarian Lomborg claimed:  and this tentatively hopeful view may be about right:
However, it all rather depends on what happens next, in the EU, US, China and elsewhere …

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