Technological breakthroughs against climate change brighten the horizon

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 29/10/14

Humanity will be unable to combat climate change without profound transformations in the way it generates energy.

Two such transformations have been recently announced, one in Singapore, the other in USA.

In Singapore, a team of scientists of the Nanyang Technological University have developed a new type of ultra-fast recharging batteries which are claimed to charge a car battery up to 70% of capacity within five minutes. This breakthrough will revolutionise e-mobility in terms of range and costs and make electric cars superior to the most efficient diesel vehicles.

European manufacturers should therefore urgently reassess the situation and adapt their proven, but old-fashioned engine technology at the risk of losing out to US and Chinese competitors.

The new batteries will provide us with truly clean motor vehicles and give a powerful boost to solar and wind energy, because millions of cars may form big energy storage systems helping to overcome the inherent intermittences of renewable energies.

Separately, the US defence company Lockheed has announced a breakthrough in fusion energy. Within a year it will build a test reactor to be followed five years later by a prototype of a 100 MW reactor of tiny dimensions (2×3 meter!).

Assuming the problems linked to nuclear fission, in particular safety and waste storage, to be solved this might usher in an era of non-fossil electricity generation based on wind, solar, biomass and nuclear fusion.

The demand for oil and gas will also fall dramatically as the global car, shipping and possibly even aircraft industry will phase out the internal combustion engine, say by 2050, reinforcing the decline of C02 emissions.

Add to these two technological breakthroughs the introduction of a magnetic super high-speed train by the Japanese railways until 2045.

Running at a speed of up to 500 km/h the train will largely replace domestic air transport, also a significant source of C02 emissions. The Japanese industry will no doubt export the new train to other parts of the earth, from North America, to Brazil, Argentina, Russia and Europe, with the consequence that there too it is likely to replace domestic air traffic on distances of less than 1500 km.

The news from Singapore, USA and Japan unfortunately show that Europe has lost its momentum in coming up with courageous technical and political solutions both to tackle climate change!

We are closer than ever to technical solutions allowing for a largely emission-free future. By establishing strict emission targets heads of government will help accelerate the technological breakthroughs that are arising on the horizon.

In conclusion, one year ahead of the World Climate Conference in Paris, there is reason for guarded optimism, provided policy makers will show the courage to fix ambitious long-term targets and avoid getting again lost in minutiae.

Brussels 20.10 2014 Eberhard Rhein

The Paris Climate Conference must agree on abolishing fossil energy subsidies

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 21/10/14

During the last years international organisations from IMF to IEA have called for the abolition of subsidies on oil and gas consumption. At its meeting in September 2009, the G20 has also agreed to phase them out in the medium term.

Without much avail; most governments concerned continue to ignore these calls, whatever the negative impact of their subsidies on budgets, urban traffic, trade balance, pollution, human health and, of course, the global climate.

The amount of the subsidies does not show signs of decline. It continues to range about half a trillion USD, 0.7 per cent of global GDP!

Most of the subsidies are being granted by low and medium-income countries, which can least afford to squander huge amounts of money for giving wrong incentives.

The other category of sinners are rich oil- and gas- producing countries that seem to consider their oil and gas reserves big enough to indulge in the highest C02 per capita emissions on earth, topping the USA, Canada and Australia.

Fossil-fuel subsidies counter-act the efforts undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help humanity survive in sustainable conditions. By keeping fossil-fuel prices even below low world market levels they push up consumption.

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference must therefore call for rising fossil energy prices in all countries, something that has never been done before.

The first step must be a rapid phasing out of fossil-fuel subsidies to be followed by a progressive introduction of fossil energy taxation, whatever its form.

Subsidies and taxes are easy to check: governments simply have to lay open their budget expenditures and revenues.

The Paris Conference needs to fix a deadline, say 2025, when the phasing out of subsidies should be completed and fossil fuel taxation should start. IMF or IEA should be tasked with monitoring and reporting on progress.

In view of achieving a consensus in Paris on this approach, the French government should dispatch several high-level emissaries to the major subsidising countries with the mission to convince the governments of the advantages from abolishing fossil fuel subsidies and introducing fossil fuel energy taxation.

It will be anything like an easy mission. But after five years of inaction the international community must finally take the courage to be tough with the “sinners”.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 10/10/2014

Bulgaria should not go ahead with a second nuclear power plant

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 21/10/14

After seven years of negotiations Bulgaria has signed a provisional contract with the US company Westinghouse to build a 1 GW nuclear power plant to complement the 3.8 GW nuclear capacity of the 40 year old Soviet-built Kozloduy plant, reserving the final decision to the summer of 2015 after detailed cost-benefit analysis.

Bulgaria`s record in the energy sector is one of the worst among EU member states. The costs are too high; the country is anything but energy-efficient and complaints about mismanagement, over-pricing, lack of competitiveness and corruption have been numerous.

The new Bulgarian government should therefore undertake a thorough examination before finalising a contract, and it must do with the help of external neutral experts.

Does Bulgaria, a net exporter of electricity, really need the extra power capacity? Is it worth investing $ 5 billions for a second nuclear power plant, considering its stagnant or even declining power demand, the experience with colossal cost-overruns of the new nuclear power plant in Finland and the decisions of Germany and France to close all or part of their nuclear capacity within the next 10 years.

Is not much more effective to invest $ 5 billion a thermal rehabilitation programme of the poorly insulated apartment blocks from the Soviet era, as the Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev has recently suggested in an interview? Such a programme would certainly create many more jobs than a nuclear power plant.

In any event, Bulgaria like all other member countries will have to put the emphasis on reducing the consumption of energy through higher energy-efficiency and putting in place renewable energies.

It would therefore be appropriate for the EU Commission to take a closer look at the cost-benefit analysis that Bulgaria will undertake and make sure that it also includes alternatives like rehabilitation programmes for poorly insulated public buildings and apartment blocks?

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 7/10/2014

Germany turning into an Electricity Importer

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 20/10/14

Germany is in the beginning of its nuclear phase-out to be completed by 2022.

To that end, it has to replace nuclear power accounting for 18% of its electricity supply, compared to more than half from coal, by higher energy efficiency and renewable energy.

It will also have to close some 30 conventional coal- and gas-fired power plants with a total capacity of 7 GW, which can no longer compete against wind and solar electricity.

To cope with these closures north-south grids  will be necessary to transport large volumes of wind power, but their construction suffers delays because of technical hiccups and public opposition. German utilities have therefore begun buying electricity from Austrian, Italian and French sources for the winters 2014-2016.

This is to be applauded. European power producers have an intrinsic interest to trade electricity according to daily and seasonal availabilities and costs.

The wider the geographic scope for trading wind and solar electricity the easier will it be to do without “stand-by” power plants: somewhere in Europe hydro, biomass, sunshine or wind should normally  be available. Gas-fired stand-by capacities should be an exception, as they are expensive to operate because of low capacity utilisation.

In order to obtain energy security and sustainable supply Europe will need pan European grids and optimal energy efficiency. That will take time and huge investments. The EU has laid out a strategy until 2050 to that end. It should start implementation 2014-20 with support financing from EU structural funds.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 10/10/2014

Brazil drought must set off global climate alarm bells

Posted by Eberhard Rhein on 14/10/14

In 2009 Antonio Sobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, warned his citizens that if the country did not stop deforestation it would experience a catastrophe in five years. Five years later, in October 2014, the centre and south-east of the country is experiencing its worst drought since 50 years. Sao Paulo, with 12 million people the biggest cities of the Americas, is running short of drinking water, one oft its main water reservoirs having only five per cent of its capacity left.

The drought will have a negative impact on agriculture, energy and economic development. The coffee and sugar harvests will decline while prices are bound to soar.

It is absolutely home-made, deforestation being the major cause.

Despite all warnings, Brazil has cut 22 per cent of the Amazon forest, even 90 per cent of the Atlantic region, overlooking the vital functions it fulfils for the country in terms of humidity, water supply and agriculture.

It serves a huge hydrological pump for the country, especially the southern agricultural parts no longer covered by forests: 20 billion tons of vapour are daily being generated by the forest trees, which,after moving into the sky, are blown westward, blocked by the Andean mountains to be diverted south where they pour down in form of rain.

The 2014 drought demonstrates the fragility of this millennium-old system.

Brazil has therefore not one day to lose before taking action to contain further deforestation for logging and agricultural land. It must be the top priority for the next government.

Deforestation must also be a priority for the 2015 Climate Conference. What is happening in Brazil today is bound to happen in other countries tropical rainforests, from Indonesia to Congo and Gabon.

The international community must therefore decide to put an end to deforestation without further delay. This is no longer a matter of individual countries, no more than carbon dioxide emissions from China, Europe or USA.

The world expects actions from Paris in December 2015.The major countries responsible for climate change must finally put their signature to a text that must be prepared long before.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 15/10/2014

Stopping tropical deforestation by 2030

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 06/10/14

Since the UN Climate Summit meeting in New York the prospects for halving the rate of tropical deforestation by 2020 and stopping it altogether by 2030 look pretty bright,with 40 major international companies and the US, EU, Canada and Norway lending their support to a global forest initiative.

Forests constitute a major carbon reservoir and have a decisive influence on the earth’s environment ( for water, temperature and variety of species). It is therefore in humanity’s vital interest to maintain them.

They continue to cover some 30% of the earth’s surface.

Deforestation has slowed down during the last few years. It has come to a standstill in temperate countries, but not yet in tropical countries despite some impressive results in Brazil, which, owning the biggest tropical forests, has slashed its rate of deforestation by 75% since 2004, thanks also to substantial funding from Norway.

As a consequence, the share of deforestation in global CO2 emissions has fallen to only 11%.

It is possible to stop it altogether in the next 15 years, provided the small number of tropical countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa with extensive forests engage in modern forest management, and wealthy countries and individuals back them financially in these efforts.

Donors should focus their assistance on one or two countries, as Norway has successfully done. This puts the responsibilities straight, builds confidence and allows an optimal monitoring.

Controlling deforestation is a cost-effective approach to climate change. It does not require huge investments as in the power sector. All it requires is to finance the personnel necessary to monitor illegal logging, organise the rehabilitation of damaged swathes of forests and stop large-scale clearing for agricultural use.

The timing is propitious. Across the world the awareness of forest preservation is growing. International business seems to waken up to its responsibility. In 2010, the net loss of global forest coverage was down to 1.3%. In the temperate zones the forest areas are rising again.

It is therefore possible to focus on 30 odd countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia still covered with tropical forests.

Several public and private initiatives have been launched. All that is required is to translate the upbeat New York Declaration of September 23th 2014 into concrete action.

To that end, the FAO should invite potential financiers, both public and private, and official from rain forest countries and hammer out a multi-annual agenda with mutual responsibilities, which should be ready by December 2015.

There is no time to be lost.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels 1/10/2014

Heating Buildings only to 16 Centigrade?

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 30/09/14

Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kiev, has recently warned his citizens that they might have to do with home temperatures of no more than 16° during the next winter in order to cope with gas and coal shortages, due to the tense economic and financial situation of the country.

For the average European, let alone American citizen this is unimaginable, except for Europeans who have experienced the years from 1945 to 1948.

But will this be unthinkable forever?

Who guarantees that we shall not be hit again by reduced gas supplies from Russia and difficulties to rapidly replace them by alternative alternative sources?

And more dangerous, though less immediate, are we sure that we must not one day radically reduce our coal, oil and gas consumption in order to put a brake on climate change?

This should normally happen by switching to renewable sources and higher energy efficiency, including through perfectly insulated buildings. But that may not be enough to allow us the luxury of heating our housing and offices at 22-24°! We better remember venerable traditions of wearing sweaters and warm shoes at home to feel well at only 18°. It would save a lot of energy and money.

Our grandchildren will be grateful.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 25/9/2014

Humanity must stop building new and phase out existing coal power plants

Posted by Eberhard Rhein on 29/09/14

The UN Climate Summit on September 24, 2014 has once again underlined the threat of global warming and climate change for future generations but stopped short of responses to what constitutes the overriding challenge for Humanity.

A mobilisation event is not enough, even if the thousands of people that flocked the streets in USA and Europe have been impressive.

Action is required; and it must come urgently and be effective. Bottom-up approaches by cities, regions or corporations are welcome but too tiny to have a global impact.

To keep the planet temperature from rising beyond the critical two centigrade humanity must reduce C02 emissions between 40 and 70% until the middle of the century, which only the EU has pledged to do so far, with its 80-95 reduction target.

In order to be successful the international community must focus on the major countries and sources accounting for the high and rising level of C02 emissions:

  • China, USA, EU, India, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Korea, Canada and Australia are jointly responsible for more than three quarters of total emissions. Without them joining the efforts there will be no effective action and no way to prevent havoc: USA, EU, Japan, Russia, Korea, Canada and Australia will, of course, have to deliver much more than emerging countries.
  • Fossil energies are the main sources driving climate change accounting for roughly 80% of the global C02 output.

Humanity has become fossil-addicted; very few people can imagine 9-11 billion human beings doing without fossil energies by 2050-2100.

Coal being by far the worst polluter the international community should in a first step agree on a halt of new coal-fired power plants and a phasing out existing ones by 2050.

To that end, the December 2015 Paris climate conference should agree to:

  • prohibit the construction of coal-fired power plants that are not equipped with CCS as of 2020;
  • withdraw annually at least 5% of non -CCS coal-fired power plant capacity;.

The USA has started the process of replacing coal by shale gas which emits only half as much C02 as coal-fired power plants. Between 2012-16 it plans to retire 60 GW of the total capacity of 310 GW.

The EU is sending mixed signals.

On the one hand, major coal countries like Poland and Germany continue expanding lignite/coal fired power.

On the other ,UK is preparing to build a 450 MW demonstration plant that will capture 90% of its C02 emissions and store them in deep North Sea waters. UK aims to phase out its coal-fired power and become one of the world leaders in carbon capture and storage technology, a strategy for which it deserves praise.

Politically, it will be anything but easy to conclude an international agreement to stop commissioning new and phase out existing coal-fired power plants.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) should be the way to overcome the understandable resistance, in particular from emerging countries like India that have hardly contributed to global climate change so far.

It is therefore urgent to build demonstrations plants like the UK is doing.

In parallel, utilities should invest in power plants operating on shale gas, LNG, wind/solar and biogas as alternatives to lignite/coal.

The first step is for the EU to take: it must urgently freeze and start phasing out its lignite/coal-fired power capacity.

This would constitute a strong gesture to the international community.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 20/9/2014

The ebola outbreak in West Africa is no threat to international peace

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 23/09/14

On September 18, the UN Security has unanimously passed a resolution, co-sponsored by 131(!) governments, calling the outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone a “threat to international peace and security” and asking countries world-wide for urgent medical personnel and supplies to contain the outbreak.

UN and WHO have waited nine months after the first case had been registered in Guinea at the end of 2013, before alarming the world community on the new outbreak of Ebola, an extremely contagious disease, in three small West African countries.

The UN Secretary General has estimated that $ 1 billion would be necessary to keep the number of cases within the tens of thousands, compared to slightly less than 6000 until now. The US government has pledged to send 3000 military to help the countries contain the disease.

Whatever the outcry and despair, the countries struck by the Ebola epidemics should be able to handle it domestically, if urgently provided with basic medical equipment and hospitals for separating infected patients.

The neighbouring countries – Senegal, Ivory Coast and Nigeria – have been almost completely spared, thanks to their better medical infrastructure and the early closure of their borders. A separate outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been contained by local efforts. Outside Africa there is practically no risk of contagion, let alone epidemics.

The alarm call by the UN Security Council has been belated and excessive. One wonders why it addresses regional health issues falling within the responsibility of the WHO.

With the necessary oversight, advice and assistance from the WHO and organisations like “Doctors without Borders” the three affected West African countries should be able to contain their epidemics without any risk for world peace.

There are far more serious and long-term threats to world peace and security that the UN should address , including climate change.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 21/9/2004


Shale gas will be no panacea for Poland’s energy policy

Posted by Laurens Cerulus on 22/09/14

Poland has been a laggard in European Climate Policy. Its substantial coal reserves, second to those of Germany, and a powerful coal lobby have prevented the country for a long time from waking up to the climate challenge.

No wonder that coal continues to account for more than half of its energy consumption and more than  80% of its electricity consumption, that its per capita C02 emissions (8 tons) have remained higher than in most EU countries and that the government has not yet succeeded in  enacting an effective strategy for lowering  green house gas emissions.

On the contrary, it continues building new coal power plants.

By  2020 11 GW  additional capacities should be on the grid,not a wise decision considering that they will remain operational until the middle of the century  when the EU aims at having reduced its CO2 emissions  by at least 80%.

More recently, under pressure from the EU and rising dependency on Russian oil and gas imports, which cover  almost 40% of the energy consumption, the government  seems to have become a bit more active in  searching for alternative energy sources.

Among these shale gas figures high. Poland  has more shale gas reserves than any other European country, with the exception of Ukraine. But over the past four years the government had to temper excessively high hopes and lower initial  estimates  from more than one trillion to only 300-700 billion cubic meters. None of the exploration wells have so far  been successful, so that some of the concessionary companies have left the country.

But despite these drawbacks the efforts should go on, because domestic shale gas would constitute a big step to make Poland a bit less dependent on Russian imports and C02-intensive coal and lignite.

Poland will, of course, have to put in place an appropriate regulatory framework, especially for the protection of groundwater. But this should be a Polish  rather than EU concern.

In addition,the government has decided to bet  on nuclear power to generate emission free electricity. In January 2014, after almost 10 years of deliberations, it has  approved a new strategy for installing two nuclear power plants with a  total capacity of 3 GW to be operational by 2035. This is an ambitious undertaking in terms of safety and financing, considering the substantial cost-overruns  of the  most  recent nuclear reactor  being built in Finland and the German nuclear exit strategy.

Renewable  energy, especially wind, solar and biomass, would be a cost-effective alternative to nuclear electricity. Poland plans to install 0.5 GW annually and reach  a capacity of 6.6 GW by 2020. But this will be impossible to achieve considering further delays on the renewable energy legislation.

This is a pity as the Polish off-shore wind capacity is estimated at 20 GW.

Ideally, the Baltic riparian countries should create a joint wind power grid to serve as a virtual power storage system. With the support from the EU Commission, the interested countries – Denmark, Germany, Poland,  Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Sweden-  stretching  over a coastline of several hundred km – should prepare a feasibility  study  for  such a project that might be completed by 2035.

Last not least, Poland should step up investments for thermal renovations of buildings to reduce the demand for heating during the cold winter months. It should use a  big chunk of the financial assistance from EU structural  funds 2014-20 for this purpose.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 20/9/2014

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