Rhein on Energy and Climate

During the last 50 years global energy demand has risen at an unprecedented pace and is expected to continue rising further in the wake of growing world population and prosperity.

These trends are not sustainable. The energy resources (coal, oil, gas, uranium) are finite and burning them is bound to accelerate climate change to a point of no return destroying the basis of human livelihood.

Climate scientists and almost all governments on earth share this basic assessment. But while scientists urge for action to be taken politicians are wavering in the face of powerful fossil energy lobbies and industry pressing for low energy prices.

Fortunately, tenuous signs for a change are appearing in the two most polluting countries, China and USA, on which the success of any international action hinges.

China has placed the fight against energy waste, air pollution and climate change among the top priorities of its Five Year Plan 2011-15. It is determined to increase its overall energy efficiency; and it envisages stepping up research and pilot projects for carbon capture and storage which is vital for continuing to burn coal with which it is amply endowed. But though the government is to be congratulated for finally acknowledging the seriousness of climate change its actions continue to fall far short of what is needed. Chinese green house gas emissions will therefore keep rising for at least 20 more years.

USA, the second biggest emitter of GHG has made great strides under the Obama Administration, thanks to circumventing a hostile Congress by executive action in the form of technical standards. CO2 emissions have begun to fall from exorbitant levels of 17 tons/per capita, due to increasing switch from coal to gas as the major fuel in power generation and stringent fuel consumption standards for passenger cars.

Driven by concerns about their security of supply, both countries will press for higher energy efficiency, in particular in buildings, and more power generation through renewables – wind, sun, hydro and biomass. But neither is ambitious enough and postulate largely C02 free energy by the middle of the century.

Only the EU, the third biggest energy consumer and CO2 emitter, can so far boast of an established record against climate change. Until 2020 its CO2 emissions will be down by 20 per cent over 1990; and it is set to reduce them by 80-95 per cent until the middle of the century. No other country has so far announced similar ambitions. But with a share of only some 12 per cent of global emissions it does not carry enough weight for preserving the climate.

Both USA and EU owe their relative success to the setting of medium and long-term targets and taking concrete measures. That distinguishes their approach from the UN-directed efforts which continue to lack precision of the targets and fail to prescribe concrete measures. Moreover, there is no political drive without which policies cannot be conceived and implemented. This is normal for assemblies grouping some 200 states with totally different levels of energy consumption and representing fundamentally different views on the future.

In order to achieve a positive outcome from the decisive Paris Climate Conference in November 2015 participant countries need to change the modus operandi of their future negotiations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon might have made a beginning by calling a restricted high-level meeting of heads of government from the main polluter countries at the margin of the September 2014 General Assembly.

To ensure a successful result in Paris the leaders of the countries responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions must agree on a cooperative strategy to keep global temperatures within a two degree Celsius rise over pre-industrial levels.

A group of climate and energy research institutes from 15 major emitter countries has translated the “two centigrade target” into the necessary reductions of green house gas emissions. The result will come as a shock for policy makers: average per capita green house gas emissions must not exceed 1.6 ton by the middle of the century. Only the poor, mostly African, countries can still indulge in rising emissions. Most other countries including EU, Japan, China and Russia will need to reduce them by around three quarters and some 20 countries like United Arab Emirates Canada, Australia, USA with very high per capita emissions by even 90 per cent until 2050.

This will be a huge challenge for every country and Humanity. It is therefore crucial to provide for an equitable burden sharing among Humanity, which per capita green house emissions, reflect better than any other yardstick.

At the Paris conference, the parties should focus on two conclusions:

  • All countries will reduce their green house gas emissions by 2050 to 1.6 tons per capita by 2050.
  • Countries emitting already more than seven tons per capita will present their strategy for implementation to the UN Secretary General for approval before 2020. Countries with per capita emissions of less than one ton can wait with presenting their climate strategy until 2030 or until exceeding a level of emissions of more than one ton.

The UN Secretary General will appoint a special representative for the preparations.

This procedure will replace the annual climate conferences, from which the necessary policy changes cannot emerge, due to increasing level of bureaucratisation, too many participants and lack of political commitment.

Future climate policy will be more differentiated by countries, and the UN should be empowered to fix policy guidelines and monitor implementation.

The following guidelines might inspire national and global policy makers:

  • All countries subsidising fossil fuels must phase these out by 2020. That process has started under the pressure from IEA and others.
  • All countries will have to invest heavily in much higher energy efficiency:
    • Thanks to perfect thermal insulation buildings must become autonomous from fossil energy.
    • The internal combustion engine must be replaced by battery-propelled electric engines, fed from renewable sources.
  • All countries must step up their recycling efforts, following the lead the by European Union
  • To slow down population growth and global energy demand developing countries must take appropriate measures and thereby contribute to the fight against climate change.
  • Countries with large forest areas must preserve these, which is vital for stabilising global environment and climate.
  • Countries in the solar belt must fully exploit their solar potential for electricity generation.
  • Countries like China, Russia, Australia and Canada that want to continue exploiting their huge coal or gas reserves must invest in carbon capture and storage.
  • Countries situated along the Seas must exploit their wind power potential and develop technologies for “harvesting” wave energies.

The World Bank, in conjunction with regional Development Banks must become the global financing and technical assistance agent for implementing the challenging structural changes towards a non-fossil society. To that end it should be in charge of managing the $ 100 billion annual International Climate Fund that the developed countries have pledged to establish by 2020.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 12/7/2014

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