COP21 ended with a hard-won deal on paper. But can it cope with the massive practical task of keeping global temperatures in a safe range to the end of this century and beyond? Despite concerns that too much is expected of renewable technology, a new billionaires club hopes to take up a key role in green energy investment. The UK has also come in for praise. Jon Herbert reports.
The road to perdition and a new international agreement on effective action to slow down global warming may both be paved with good intention. History will show how successful the recent global climate summit held in Paris eventually proves to be. The 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21 global gathering, to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached a milestone achievement by uniting 196 nations in an unprecedented action plan designed to curb excessive global warming into the foreseeable future.
Even so, many questions are still to be answered. Unlike the binding agreement approach, which failed at COP20 in Copenhagen, COP21 adopted the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) concept. This saw some 146 nations submitting unique proposals before the summit explaining how they could best help to usher in a low-carbon world economy. The best estimate is that these INDCs will jointly keep global temperature rises down to 2.7°C. The critical level is accepted to be 2°C. The summit committed itself to meeting the 2°C target by the century’s end, but also to “pursue efforts” to limit rises to 1.5°C.
The instrument for controlling temperatures is emission cuts. Some researchers predict that zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission will be essential at a point between 2030 and 2050. However, this will require the full implementation of INDCs, and then something extra. And that could be where the “good intention” part of “intended national contributions” is important. Many proposed INDCs from developing countries have been based on extremely large funding from mainly developed countries. However, full financing is still an unresolved issue. Trillions of dollars are required; billions have been offered so far.
Political will and practical circumstances could also waylay individual INDCs. Slippage is part of life. A system of regular five-year audits and updates has yet to be put into place to test INDC effectiveness. No sanctions exist for enforcing INDCs, nor any timetables. Everything is based on goodwill. And there are still grumblings as to who must bear most responsibility — developed nations as historic polluters, or the less the developed, many of whom are fast becoming principal polluters?
Even so, Paris has been hailed as a new start on a long road. It may not be the beginning of the end, but it could be the end of the beginning. At the very least, it is a global stocktaking of the problem.
Push for renewable technologies
Whatever the high-level outcome, there are opportunities and responsibilities for business. Despite some fears that too much may be expected of green technology, renewable energy and low-carbon solutions will be vital in cutting back both energy intensity and fossil fuel use. This is important for small innovators and marketplace disruptors. It has also attracted the attention of some of the world’s largest financial movers and shakers.
Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, have both joined what has been dubbed the billionaire’s club of high-profile executives and early-stage investors in the speed development of clean energy through The Breakthrough Energy Coalition. The coalition’s ethos is: invest early, invest widely, invest boldly and invest together. It points out that the world needs widely available energy that is reliable, affordable and does not produce carbon. The only way to accomplish that goal, it says, is by developing new tools to power the world.
“That innovation will result from a dramatically scaled up public research pipeline linked to truly patient, flexible investments committed to developing the technologies that will create a new energy mix,” says the coalition. It adds that it is working together with “a growing group of visionary countries who are significantly increasing their public research pipeline through the Mission Innovation initiative to make that future a reality”.
Mission Innovation aims to “reinvigorate and accelerate global clean energy innovation with the objective to make clean energy widely affordable”. It further adds that, “while important progress has been made in cost reduction and deployment of clean energy technologies, the pace of innovation and the scale of transformation and dissemination remains significantly short of what is needed. Mission Innovation will help accelerate the global clean energy revolution.”
The UK is part of the initiative to improve “the systems of research, clean energy investment, regulation, and subsidies that have so far failed to mobilise investment in ‘transformative energy solutions’ for the future.” The experienced business approach recognises “that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialisation challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product, which neither government funding nor conventional private investment can bridge,” the coalition adds.
Richard Branson is one of 25 executives and entrepreneurs from 10 countries who have pledged to help scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs “invent and scale innovative technologies to limit the impact of climate change and provide affordable and reliable energy to everyone”. Bill Gates has commented that the risk-reward balance for early-stage investing in potentially transformative energy systems was unlikely to meet the market tests of traditional angel or venture capital investors.
Praise for the UK’s environmental lead
Meanwhile, Britain has scored highly in a new international index of countries working to combat climate change based on its development of renewable energy. However, the annual ranking table compiled by Germanwatch and Climate Action Network questions the UK’s future role. Its analysts marked progress in 58 countries that together produce more than 90% of energy-related CO2 emissions. The index takes into account emission levels, trends in emissions, energy efficiency, progress towards renewable energy and climate policy.
The first three places were left empty with the organisers claiming that no major nation is currently doing enough to cut emissions. However, the UK, which was ranked fifth in the world after Denmark, was congratulated for its performance to date. However, the judges cautioned that the UK Government lacks a coherent future vision.
A new report published by Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra says that grid-connected solar power is the most effective solution for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It predicts that 12 gigatonnes of global emissions can be avoided over the next 15 years if a mix of renewable energy technologies is used, a figure that could rise to 2.1 megatonnes (Mt) of emissions by 2025 and 3.2 Mt by 2030. Findings were based on successes in Germany.
Britain has been accused of jeopardising its solar and onshore wind industries through the withdrawal of subsidy support from the New Year. However, Environment Secretary Amber Rudd pointed out recently that these technologies have already been fully introduced to the market and must succeed or fail on their own commercial merits. Instead, future government funding will focus on emerging technologies such as energy storage, low-carbon fuels and more efficient lighting, she said. A long-term vision.
The Government adds that it is on track to meet its 2020 renewable targets and is pledged to double its clean energy R%D investment over the next five years. It is also committed to meeting its 80% emissions reduction targets by 2050.
UK business has urged the Government to support existing technologies while also embracing low-carbon energy. The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Energy Centre has called the Paris agreements a “game changer” but emphasises the need to redouble R&D efforts to understand and integrate low-carbon energy systems successfully for the post-fossil-fuel era.
Confederation of British Industry incoming director-general Carolyn Fairbairn said Paris represented an exciting business opportunity on a sustainable low-carbon path, adding that “it will now be for governments to show how they plan to turn global ambition into national reality.
“Businesses will want to see domestic policies that demonstrate commitment to this goal and none more so than in the UK,” she said. Government must provide a stable environment for investments in cleaner, affordable, secure energy generation that will include both renewable technologies and new gas-fired power plants.
The UK needs to match its international competitors with a level carbon costs playing field allowing its energy intensive industries to compete effectively in a global, low-carbon market place, she added.
Researchers will also be looking at what is described as a “missing jigsaw piece” of the climate change puzzle — the role of dust in global warming.
Huge particle plumes rise regularly into the atmosphere from deserts and farmland, including massive dust-storms that recently engulfed major Middle East cities. It is unclear whether dust raises or lowers temperatures and whether a warmer world will become dustier. Prolonged droughts in Oklahoma have seen a return to conditions akin to the infamous 1930s Dust Bowl portrayed in John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
It is estimated that circa 40% of so-called aerosols released into the air annually consist of mineral dust from ploughing, grazing, diverting rivers and creating drying water bodies such as the Aral Sea. However, atmospheric dust is also created naturally on bare land in quantities defined by a combination of rainfall, geological sources and wind speed.
Prof David Thomas of Oxford University has explained that while more airborne dust could reduce incoming short-wave solar radiation and its warming effect, the atmospheric blanket dust could meanwhile reduce heat loss and lead to more warming. Put another way, greenhouse gases could be augmented by greenhouse dust.
Published by Croner-i on 22 December 2015