Rhein on Energy and Climate

From November 11 to 22, Warsaw will host the 19th UN Climate Conference.

It will follow the usual bureaucratic agenda that allows for little time to deal with the essentials. This time, moreover, it will spend more time on “climate adaptation”, a sign that the organisers have increasing doubts about Man’s ability to mitigate climate change.

But it will also have the opportunity of going through the latest scientific reports on the pace of climate change and its projected impact on global temperatures and the sea level during the course of the century. The findings are less reassuring than ever and should urge Humanity to start action without further delay.

The special meeting of heads of government with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon scheduled for 2014 should therefore concentrate on the actions to be undertaken, especially by China, USA, EU, Japan, Russia, India, Brazil and Indonesia, to avert climate disasters in the following generations.

The bulk of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from burning coal, oil and gas, Humanity will have to phase out fossil energy before the end of the century if it wants to keep the earth in reasonably good shape.

There is a scientific and political consensus to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 2 centigrade. To that end, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions must not increase by more than 1000 billion tons, roughly twice the present volume of 1100 billion tons C02 in the atmosphere. We are far from being on track: C02 emissions have increased by 400 billion tons since 2000 and keep rising by almost 3 per cent annually, 35 billion tons!

The proven global reserves of fossil fuels represent 2700 billion tons of C02, of which coal with 1700 billion, oil with 600 billion and gas with 400 billion. It would be suicidal to burn all these reserves.

The heads of government must therefore agree next year on a formula by which to phase out the burning of fossil fuels:

  • Countries with >8 tons per capita emissions and big C02 accumulation in the atmosphere must phase out burning fossil energy before 2050, much faster than the rest of Humanity.
  • Coal consumption must stop by 2040. Governments must cease authorizing new mines after 2020.
  • All fossil producer companies should be obliged to diversify into hydro, wind and solar power according to a schedule by which their fossil energy production will be phased out.
  • The UN should be in charge of monitoring the implementation of the agreements to be inserted in the 2015 world climate deal.

Phasing out fossil energies by the end of the century is a stupendous challenge. In the next decades our civilisation will have to learn how to function without coal, oil, gas and nuclear power; this will require profound technological transformations to put in place.

Will it ever be possible to satisfy our – still rising – energy hunger without coal, oil or gas?

The fossil reserves of our planet being finite or available only at exorbitant economic and environmental costs, Humanity will have no choice but to get along one day without fossil energy. The sooner we prepare for this eventuality the better it will be for our posterity.

It is technically possible to supply all our energy needs without resorting to fossil sources. Hydro, wind, solar, and sea are the alternatives on which Humanity will have to rely.

Renewable energies have made fantastic progress in terms of costs and efficiency. But they continue to suffer from temporary intermissions. There is no sunshine during night and no wind in lull periods.

The answers to this inherent handicap are sophisticated grid systems and power storage. We have to invest huge amounts in research and pilot plants to come to terms with this shortcoming of renewable energies; and we must be ready to set aside huge surfaces on earth and sea to cover all our energy needs.

Humanity should therefore step up its efforts to prevent demand from rising any further.

It must put an end to wasteful energy use, especially in countries like USA, China, Russia and some parts of Europe. Even more important, it must fully exploit the potential for higher energy efficiency.

Last not least, it should put a brake on further population increase: an additional rise of global population from 7.2 to more than 9 billion human beings in 2050 on our tiny planet is in many respects a nightmare, last not least because of the increase in energy consumption that goes along with it. Family planning will therefore also be crucial for containing global energy consumption.

In the coming decades, Humanity will be confronted the need to formulate appropriate policies.

These must differentiate between countries of different development levels and cumulative emission volumes. USA, Canada, Australia and EU will have to go ahead with the energy transformation. The EU has pledged doing so by largely “decarbonising” its energy consumption until the middle of the century.

Calling for fossil energies to be phased out within some 90 years will provoke massive opposition from coal, oil and gas business. Governments will have to convince business leaders of the need to turn to energy conservation and renewable energies as alternatives. This will be anything but easy because it implies big write-offs on coal, oil and gas deposits that will have to stay in the ground.

Raising energy efficiency must become the foremost tool for replacing fossil energies. High energy efficiency should enable us to reduce energy consumption by up to 50 per cent. Optimal insulation of buildings, flat TV screens, LED lamps, electric motor vehicles and smart power grids are a few examples.

Governments should offer generous subsidies for research in energy efficiency, which generates high returns for the energy sector and the economy.

Massive investments in renewable energies for electricity and heat generation and smart grids must be another priority to replace fossil sources.

Making fossil energy progressively more expensive must be a third instrument of fighting climate change, though policy makers dislike raising energy prices and only resign to it if all major energy consuming countries follow suit.

The very first obligation must be the phasing of fossil energy subsidies. This process should be completed everywhere before 2030 and monitored by the UN. In parallel, all major fossil energy consumer countries should introduce progressive carbon taxation or C02 emission caps and trading.

The above proposals will appear utopian in view of the resistance from powerful business lobbies and the divergence of interests between main countries.

Hopefully, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will submit courageous and realistic proposals when presenting its reports on the impact of climate change and appropriate policies in the spring of 2014 in Berlin and Tokyo.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 6/11/2013

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