Rhein on Energy and Climate


Humanity is towards a global cataclysm. It will be impossible to contain the rise of global temperature within the EU target two centigrade, unless the major emission countries take draconian and urgent action, without further delay.

  • During 2002-06, global C02 emissions have been rising at an average annual rate of 3.6 percent, a bit less than the rise of global GDP. Both growth rates are perfectly unsustainable.
  • C02 emissions remain directly linked to energy consumption, which in turn is correlated to GDP. Globally, we are still far from decoupling economic growth from fossil energy consumption, which is a conditio sine qua non for a globally sustainable development.
  • During 2002-06 the annual increase of C02 emissions has been six times higher than during 1991-95, rising from 150 million to 900 million tons annually!
  • Since 1970 humanity has added some 300 billion tons of C02 to the stock of C02 accumulated in the atmosphere, and it is most likely to add another 600 billion tons until 2050, which would be irresponsible.

Since the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1991, humanity has failed to take effective action. It continues to fool itself fiddling around with long-term targets.

  • Climate policy officials urge for a 50 percent reduction of global C02 emissions below the 1990 level, until 2050. But they fail to tell us that this target implies a decline of global emissions by 65 percent against present emission levels. This is an impossible task to shoulder with the present deployment of political will.
  • Simultaneously, global energy demand is expected to double until 2050, more than 75 percent of total demand to be covered by fossil fuels.

Humanity is on a path of inconsistency. It is time to open our eyes to the formidable challenge ahead of us. None of the world leaders dares to figure out policy dimensions, the mobilisation of technological and financial resources and, last not least, the behaviour changes required to prevent a “meltdown”.

A few European leaders may have taken superficial note of the 2006 Stern Report, but none of them has deemed appropriate to invite its author and similar “wise men” for an in-depth debate with the European Council, which is too busy to care about the long-term future of our tiny planet.

In the last few months several leading experts have issued more dire warnings about the acceleration of global warming and the urgency of effective action.

  • James Hansen et al. have warned humanity not to exceed an atmospheric C02 concentration of more than 350 ppm, at the risk of doing irreparable to the earth’s biosphere. The present concentration is 380 ppm, and the Stern report projects it might reach 560 ppm as early as 2035, unless humanity takes radical action.
  • China has overtaken the USA as the biggest emitter of C02 as of 2007, due to its unprecedented economic growth based on constantly rising inputs of fossil energy.
  • Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, has called for a mobilisation of humanity against climate change, comparable to the US war effort in 1943-45 (cf. his Plan B 3.0).
  • Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, has invited the international community to reorient the Copenhagen agenda (December 2009) from “burden sharing” to “commercial opportunities” (in renewable energies and energy efficiency) if it wants to avoid a failure with untold consequences to civilisation

(cf. “Leading the Way to the Third Industrial Revolution; Brussels, and European Parliament 12.06.08).


The time for complacency should be over. It is time to act, coherently and effectively with a long-term vision.

First, we need to define targets for concrete action.

We must replace the abstract and negative target of reducing C02 and CH4 (methane) emissions by a concrete and positive target.

Humanity must aim at a zero-carbon energy supply for every country and every activity. Of course, it is unattainable. There will always be some C02 and methane emissions as long as human beings will want to enjoy a warm home, consume beef or rice or move around.

But we can and must come very close to it, and everybody can visualise it. Attaining it implies replacing essentially all fossil energy by renewable resources (hydro, wind, solar, waves, and biomass) and C02- free technologies (carbon capture and storage, nuclear power).

A zero-carbon energy supply target is easily translatable into concrete policy programmes, e.g.

  • Achieve a zero C02 power generation by 2050.
  • Phase out the combustion engine by 2050.
  • Phase in zero-emission buildings by 2050.

These three targets are ambitious but doable. If we fail to achieve them, the earth will irreversibly become a bleak place as of the second half of the 21st century.

Second, the major polluting countries should go ahead.

It will not be possible to chart a sustainable course for humanity with 200 odd countries set the course and commit to it. Others should progressively join the global fight as they will become able to and as the front-runners set the example.
Any other approach is bound to lead to nowhere. We have witnessed this during the Kyoto negotiations; we see it again in preparation for the Copenhagen “showdown”. There is neither leadership nor negotiation, just confusion amid never-ending talks and lots of smokescreen

In 2006, China, USA, EU, Russia and Japan accounted for almost two third of global C02 emissions. These five emitters need to take concrete actions, in order to have a substantial impact on global emissions. In a second stage, they have to get another 30 countries like Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia etc., which combined account for another 20 percent of global emissions, on board.

It will require a lot of arguments, persuasion and inducements to get all the key polluters to agree on substantive, differentiated action, with longer transition periods for China and fast action by the OECD countries, above all the USA with its excessively high level of per capita emissions.

The EU will have to shoulder its responsibility. It should sketch a global vision before the end of 2008 and present it to its partners, starting with the USA, in early 2009.
Only a combined EU-USA political leadership will be able to turn the Copenhagen Climate Conference into a success.

Third, we should concentrate on the few most polluting sectors

Four sectors account for three quarter of global C02 emissions: deforestation, power generation, road transport and housing. Any international effort will have to concentrate in order to be effective.

For each of these four sectors the “Big Five” should elaborate a set of concrete measures to be taken during the coming 20 years. These measures need not be identical for all participants.

Forests and the oceans constitute the two big C02 reservoirs on earth.

It is essential for the biosphere to keep these intact, at least as long as humanity has not stopped C02 emissions from burning fossil energy. Deforestation has accelerated dramatically during the past 20 years, due to population pressure, land scarcity and booming demand for timber, especially in China. As a consequence, deforestation accounts presently for about 20 percent of global emissions, in particular in the tropical rain forests, which are also of vital importance for maintaining the earth’s biodiversity.

It should be possible to bring deforestation to a halt by a combination of practical measures: tackling illegal logging, land reform, agricultural productivity, curbing demand for tropical timber and appropriate financing.

“The Big Five” should rapidly get together with the three main forest countries concerned – Brazil, Congo and Indonesia – and draft an effective anti-deforestation strategy. Their proposals should then serve a as the basis for a multilateral convention to be signed at Copenhagen 2009.

The EU should rapidly take the initiative. It is the most promising sector for attaining a rapid reduction of C02 emissions.

Power generation accounts for around one third of global C02 emissions.

It is technically possible to generate C02-free electricity for satisfying all present and future needs of humanity.

Major types of C02-free electricity like nuclear, hydro and biomass are already competitive at present international prices for coal and gas. Others like solar, wind and waves still need to be subsidised.

Consumers will have to put with higher electricity rates. Contrary to a common perception, high electricity rates do not constitute a serious handicap to international competitiveness, apart from a few electricity-intensive products like aluminium, copper or certain types of steel.
If it were otherwise, Germany would long have lost its position as the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured products.

The “Big Five” should agree on two simple measures, which will rapidly transform power generation and help generate essentially all electricity from “green energy” by the middle of the century:

  • Make C02- free power generation, from whatever source, mandatory for newly commissioned power plants, as of 2020. That will offer utilities enough time to choose among the most appropriate technological options: nuclear, hydro, wind, solar thermal, PV, waves, and biomass and, last not least, CCS.
    Governments should facilitate the transition by generous research grants to utilities desiring to probe new technologies.
  • Grant generous, but degressive subsidies on all forms of zero-emission technologies. The European model of feed-in tariffs appears to be the most effective and flexible method of subsidising new technologies. It rightly charges the consumers of electricity and not the tax payers with the cost of the subsidies.

Road transport (passenger cars and trucks) is responsible for up to a quarter of global C02 emissions.

It is easy to dramatically reduce C02 emissions from automobiles by radical changes of automobile technology. The industry only needs the right incentives. These have lacked in the USA, due to cheap oil and gasoline prices. The result has been the quixotic boom and bust of SUVs!

The “Big Five” should agree on putting into place progressively stricter fuel efficiency or C02 emission standards.

  • By 2020, the global standard for automobile fleets should be about 100 g C02 emission/km or 4 litre/100 km consumption.

The EU is pioneering with its proposal for 120g C02 emission by 2012. It may serve as a global reference.

By 2050, automobiles and trucks should run on fuel cells fuelled by hydrogen (generated from solar energy) and batteries fuelled by green electricity. Land transport should therefore have come close to zero C02 emissions.

Housing and buildings account for another third of global emissions, with big differences between northern and southern countries.

It is technically possible to build low-emission housing, thanks to rapid technological progress in thermal insulation and the integration of renewable energies – solar thermal, photovoltaic, heat pumps – and efficient air circulation methods.

Several thousand low-energy buildings have been installed during the last 10 years, in the wake of rising fuel costs and technological progress in design and construction.

Governments should therefore make low-emission buildings mandatory for any new construction, say as of 2015, and engage in a massive programme for retrofitting existing buildings, by making available attractive low-interest loans.

For the coming 20 years, the emphasis should be on thermal insulation rather than on transforming buildings into “renewable power plants”.

The “Big Five” should agree on mandatory energy efficiency standards (thermal insulation) for all new office and residential buildings by 2015 latest.
To that end, they should set up a “technical coordination committee”, which would liaise among the national agencies responsible for building standards and monitor the progress in the participating countries.


The above outline of measures has not the slightest chance of becoming a policy blueprint unless heads of government in the main countries engage and make climate policy the top priority of their political action.

They will not do so as long as they are not convinced that

  • Climate change constitutes the most serious threat to human civilisation;
  • Effective action has to be undertaken without delay;
  • Effective action is technically possible at low cost to their societies;
  • Effective action should be seen as an opportunity for the inescapable transformation of technologies and our way of life;
  • The price of fossil energy has to rise substantially to induce the necessary changes of technology and behaviour;

Governments have a primordial role to play in smoothing the adjustment process.

Heads of government therefore need to undergo the appropriate “brain washing”. They have to understand

  • the profound mutations that a global population of > nine billion aspiring to European living standards will produce;
  • the basic climatologic data, causalities and inter-connexions;
  • the technological challenges for attaining the zero-emission society.

European leaders should show the way and address the following questions:

  • What should happen to prevent a global catastrophe?
  • What sort of action should be taken by the main players?
  • What is the cost? What investment necessary? How to finance it?
  • How to address the competitive threats?
  • How to get the technologies off the ground?
  • What is Europe’s chance in climate technologies?
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