Rhein on Energy and Climate

I.

Climate change has become an intrinsic component of modern life.

It is there every morning, everywhere on earth. Winters have become much milder than 30 years ago. The weather has become whimsical: we can no longer tell what temperatures will be like the next day, they may rise or fall steeply, even double from one day to the next.

We experience long periods of drought or rain. Storms have become much more frequent and violent.

In the northern hemisphere snow and ice can no longer be taken for granted, not even in mountainous regions. Snow may turn into rain, to the discontent of hotels and the skiing community.

The Arctic Sea is likely to become largely ice-free during the summer months. This will further accelerate climate change, because the “albedo effect” will disappear in summer.

The permafrost of the Siberian and Canadian tundra will progressively disappear, leading to rising methane emissions, which are several times as dangerous for the atmosphere as C02. This will become a devastating time bomb!

Greenland will once again turn a bit “greener” leading to a slow but non-stoppable melting of its ice cover, which in turn will slowly raise sea level. But that process is most likely to be distant 100 years and more in the future.

We are becoming eye-witnesses of the script that climate scientists have written and projected 20 years ago with the first reports of the UN Climate Panel. But we are only in the very beginning of climate change;most of us do not even register the natural changes taking place around us. Though they occur at an awe-inspiring speed modern human beings have lost the sense for natural phenomena. They are getting accustomed to these changes: the younger generation has not known different weather conditions and adapts to them as it has to so many changes in daily life that are part of modern civilisation. About half of of the seven billion human beings on earth simply do not care: metropolitan areas appear to protect them, for the time being, against climate change.

The imperceptible way in which climate change occurs makes it enormously difficult to mobilise people and act against its causes. What should the individual do against it? Why should he or she act at all? After all, so far the repercussions have been rather benign, sometimes even positive.

The number and intensity of natural disasters that may be attributed to climate change is not such as to provoke the right reactions: They are spread across the globe and over time; their global damage has hardly risen during the last 30 years. In 2011 it amounted to about $ 150 billion. That is peanuts, noticed only by insurance companies.

II.

There is a consensus among climate scientists about the human-made nature of climate change, essentially C02 emissions from energy generation/consumption, transport, agriculture and deforestation. But this consensus is far from being shared across the world. Powerful business groups, particularly in the USA, continue to deny any link between human activity and climate change. And most governments are too weak and concerned with short-time political issues to worry about the future of the planet.

Climate scientists insist on the need for global C02 emissions to fall at least by half until the middle of the century if humanity wants to prevent irreversible damage to the earth’s eco-system.

This will only happen if the global economic product declines by half until 2050 or if humanity succeeds in making production, transport and energy generation largely C02-free, both of which are highly unlikely. On the contrary, humanity is set to increase its economic product at a rate of some 4 per cent annually during the coming 20 years, generating a roughly equal increase of C02 emissions.

The EU is the only group of countries committed to a gradual reduction of its emissions. But its accounts for only14 per cent of global emissions, declining progressively to less than 10 per cent as other regions boost their economies.

The perspectives are therefore very gloomy. The most recent Durban Climate Conference has not fundamentally improved this pessimistic outlook. It has produced no more than a “promise” by the main emitter countries to prepare a comprehensive climate compact by 2015 that should enter into force after 2020. There is no substantive agreement on the nature of such a climate compact, the actions to be taken or the burden sharing between developed, emerging and developing countries.

The USA remains as hostile as ever to binding commitments. Only China seems to have understood that it might suffer seriously from accelerating climate change and benefit from a world-wide boost of renewable energies and energy efficiency.

III.

Where to go from here?

  • Engage in massive lobbying and advertising campaigns in the main emitter countries to prepare the ground for the harsh political decisions that need to be taken in the next eight years. It should focus on the youngsters who will suffer most from the failure to cope with climate change. The UN should assume the responsibility for organising these with the assistance of European countries that should volunteer to share their experience.
  • Demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of replacing the bulk of fossil energy inputs by renewable energies and energy efficiency.
  • Demonstrate the possibility of mobilising the necessary financing, essentially private sources and long-term credits from national and multilateral financing institutions, e.g. World Bank and regional development banks.
  • Build climate and energy strategies for 2020-50, at national and global levels.
  • Exploit the EU experience in elaborating energy and climate road maps and offer large-scale technical assistance to all countries eager to learn from it.
  • Establish “strategic climate partnerships” between EU and like-minded countries. China should become such a partner despite the present tensions about the inclusion of air traffic into the EU emission trading system.
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Comments

  1. Yes, speedy action is needed. But lobbying, demonstrations, strategies, roadmaps etc have all been in place for many years. The necessary breakthrough might need to be something new?

    I’d suggest addressing the obstacle that has scuppered all climate talks for 20 years – fears of lost economic growth. Growth so far has been growth based on a single strategy of linear resource consumption, with an outcome of declining resources/ecosystems and accumulating wastes including greenhouse gases. Another growth strategy is available, called circular economics, whereby materials are used then returned as new resources for the economy or nature. The obvious advantage would be that growth would build rather than diminish the potential for further growth. I’ve designed a simple economic tool to make the transition, so the mechanism for change would be the strongest possible – the entire global economy.

    Others who support the need for speedy effective action please get in touch via the link on this comment – thanks!

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