Seen by many as the call for final orders in the last chance saloon, a successful December COP 21 world climate deal could create a multi-billion pound renewables and energy-efficiency boom to literally stop the world from overheating. But, with just weeks to go, Jon Herbert looks at the immense issues still to be resolved on the road to global decarbonisation.
Anxious to breathe life into a permanent low-carbon revolution after 20 earlier attempts, negotiators from 196 nations will be hoping for a smooth transition to a new fossil-fuel free world when they meet in Paris, which saw the birth over 200 years ago of the chaotic French Revolution. Today’s agenda is about cutting carbon, not heads. But heads may need to be seriously banged together to reach a conclusion.
With many divisive outstanding issues still to be settled, the final outcome of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21, or CMP 11, could still be the best of deals, or the worst of deals. The final stage of the marathon negotiating process — perhaps the most difficult mankind has ever attempted — to boil down hundreds of pages of proposals and thousands of ideas into a workable treaty will take place between 30 November and 11 December.
Success would fundamentally change how we live, work, manufacture, farm, consume and make progress. Failure could mean soaring temperatures this century which, scientists predict, will threaten food chains, cause water shortages, accelerate sea-level rises and disrupt global weather. At present, the world is still firmly on course to breach the 2°C temperature rise ceiling.
Meeting after meeting
World leaders failed to reach a deal when they met in Copenhagen in 2009, where their strategy was to set binding targets and caps. Paris will be different. This time individual nations have been encouraged to submit their own voluntary low-carbon plan — or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) — which they are confident they can implement. By aggregating well over 100, the conference hopes to create a successful solution.
INDCs have been creeping in at a snail’s pace. By mid-October, 148 nations had submitted their INDCs, jointly representing some 90% of global emissions. However, by one estimation this will only limit a temperature rise to 2.7°C — an advance on the 3°C to 4°C predicted without a world treaty, but still not enough. And according to the London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute, INDCs received by late summer would only cut emissions by 10 billion tonnes by 2030, which would still leave a total of 56.9 billion to 59.1 billion tonnes annually, compared with the 36 billion maximum cap that must be achieved if the world is to have a 50:50 chance of not exceeding 2°C.
INDCs under the microscope
As with many grand plans, the devil is in the detail — with costs, coal and nuclear power confusing the mix. Conflicting proposed conditions and caveats within individual INDCs could upset deal-making and a major division in the complex pre-talks leading up to Paris has been over the costs of decarbonisation — and who should pick up the bill?
A core principle of COP 21 is that developed nations will help finance the low-carbon strategies of developing countries. Copenhagen suggested a $100 billion world fund. However, many developing states have included enormous price tags that collectively amount to billions of dollars as the cost of their co-operation.
India has included in its IDNC a huge $2.5 trillion bill and could be seen to be acting as pacemaker for developing nations that are using the INDC process to leverage up financial issues. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar has highlighted the change in attitudes between Copenhagen and Paris. “I am telling the world that the bill for climate action for the world is not just $100 billion, it is trillions of dollars per year,” he says.
The Democratic Republic of Congo alone is asking for $12.54 billion to cut its emissions by 17%. Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko of South Africa added, “It is not a photo opportunity; it is not an instagram or selfie moment. It is a reality we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
And there is a more contentious issue. Many countries are pressing for financial compensation to cover past and present damage they attribute to climate change caused by historic industrialisation. The Philippines says that without climate damage compensation, its INDC plan to cut emissions by 70% won’t happen. Serbia says it suffered €5 billion in flood and drought damage between 2005 and 2015 due to manmade climate change.
This issue is not proving popular with developed nations who are not keen to face open-ended claims and argue that many fast-growing states are now leading polluters.
If an international deal is clinched to wean the world off dirty fuels, two key tools in the carbon-cutting arsenals of many countries will be to raise energy-efficiency and adopt renewable energy. It is important to see success in Paris as an enabling process that starts a long journey.
In 2014, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the global market energy-efficient goods and services was potentially some $310 billion annually. If governments agree a Paris deal to keep atmospheric CO2 levels below 450ppm, the IEA believes the market could grow to between $8.1 trillion and $11.2 trillion by 2030 — with an annual average of between $540 billion and $747 billion across construction, appliances and transportation. When other greenhouse gases are included, the 450ppm threshold is likely to be reduced further, opening the door still wider to energy efficiency.
It is further calculated that expanding developing world cities could represent a market of $90 trillion in the next 15 years. The UN climate convention (UNFCCC) notes that more than half of India’s 2030 infrastructure has yet to be built! China too wants to cut its carbon intensity (per person) by 60% to 65% through energy efficiency.
The IEA also estimates that some $4 trillion will have to be invested in renewables in the same period to meet the targets pledged by governments so far. Wind is expected to account for roughly a third, solar just under a third and hydro a quarter.
However, the reality is unlikely to be so simple. Nuclear power, coal and finance could upset the diplomatic apple-cart.
India wants low-carbon technologies to deliver up to 40% of its energy by 2030. However, it hopes to grow its nuclear power sector by 1000% from 6GW to 63GW. That scenario would leave little scope for renewables and if its nuclear build programme falls back, renewables could have a 276GW gap to fill. One of the factors determining its nuclear future could be how much external finance it expects.
Coal is the prime emissions villain. However, critics say coal is still essential. Get it right, and coal could be acceptable in the interim. Get it wrong, and face really dirty coal plants long into the future, they warn.
Former UN climate change secretariat chief Yvo De Boer supports the move away from coal and restrictions on financial lending for coal developments. Yet, he also argues that without support for new, “ultra-super critical” coal plants, the world may end up with something far worse.
India is again a prime example. The world’s fourth largest carbon emitter, its INDC includes substantial investments in highly efficient coal production. That pivots on financial help from the international community, it says. De Boer contends that not addressing the issue could be risky. In a parallel move, the Australian Government recently granted permission for the development of one of the world’s largest coal mines to be built by India’s Adani Mining group in Queensland. The mine will have a peak output of 60 million tonnes per year. Environment minister Greg Hunt says the Carmichael project, covering a land area seven times the size of Sydney Harbour, will be subject to “36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history”.
Coal is dividing sides in Europe too. France’s energy and ecology minister, Segolene Royal, is said to favour a complete end to any further coal investments by part-government owned energy provider, Engie. The World Bank, European Investment Bank and Citigroup have all limited their lending to coal projects. Meanwhile, a leading Polish politician wants the EU to renegotiate its 2030 climate action plan, saying that Poland needs to invest more heavily in coal production. Coal is a key issue for Japan, too.
Strong business support
Some of the world’s largest businesses have added their support to the Paris summit, including BP, Shell, Rio Tinto, Alstom and Siemens. They say there are sound business reasons for an agreement that will give clear long-term policy signals, increase government transparency, tackle international competitiveness issues and improve carbon pricing schemes.
A statement from the chief executives of ten of the world’s largest oil companies added that “Our shared ambition is for a 2°C future.” The statement continued, “It is a challenge for the whole of society. We are committed to playing our part.” The group produces 20% of the world’s oil and gas and says that over the last 10 years it has reduced its own emissions by 20%. The companies promise to invest in carbon capture and storage, renewables and to promote natural gas as a better option than coal.
A tale of two scenarios
Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in 18th century revolutionary Paris, began with the words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …”
If that description sounds familiar early in the 21st century, delegates will be hoping that the new energy revolution achieves a much more co-operative conclusion.
Published by Croner-i on 2 November 2015