Rhein on Energy and Climate

The international community has failed to address climate change. And there is no prospect for it being more successful in the near future. Nobody expects the ministerial meeting (COP 16) scheduled for the end of the year in Cancun to lead to a substantive breakthrough.

The time has come for a more thorough reflection on where we stand and should go in the future before pursuing further routine “climate tourism”:

Is the UN the appropriate body for international climate negotiations? Why should 190 countries “negotiate”, while less than 40 of them account for 80 of the global emissions?

Has there not been too much emphasis on abstract emission goals from arbitrary base years?

Have we sufficiently considered the huge differences in per capita emissions?

Have the negotiations not become overcharged with far too many issues in order to “buy off” each of the 190 participants?

Have the negotiations not often been surrealistic when considering the limited means of monitoring the implementation of whatever climate targets agreed?

Instead of losing more time and energy on endless quarrels about global temperatures, C02 content in the atmosphere and reduction targets for green house gases, the international Community should concentrate on concrete measures that everybody understands and that are easy to track.

To start with, the international Community should focus on three major sources of C02 emissions: automobiles, electric power and lighting.

Automobiles are undergoing a technological revolution, away from the internal combustion engine to electrical drive. This is the challenge for the coming 30 years. In view of encouraging this process, governments need to fix increasingly stricter fuel efficiency standards, as the EU and the USA have already done. A fuel efficiency standard, of say 3 litre/100 km or 50 g C02 emissions/ km by 2025, will require electric engines.

The 10 major automobile-producing countries should negotiate appropriate standards and time frames in which they are to be respected. This should not be difficult as there is no need for complete identity or synchronisation of the standards.

To obtain a reduction of global green house gas emissions of at least 50 percent by 2050, it is indispensable to “decarbonise” power generation. By 2050 all electricity generated in the world should come from solar, wind, biomass, hydro or nuclear sources! That is technically and economically feasible.

To get there, humanity has to start today and fix intermediate targets for the share of non-fossil sources in power generation. EU, USA and other countries are already doing so by committing the power sector to generate at least 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energies in 2020. To facilitate an international consensus on intermediate targets for 2020, 2030 and 2040 nuclear power should be included as “acceptable” non-fossil sources.

This negotiation will be more complex as more countries will be involved. China, Russia, Australia and the USA will find it not easy to part from coal. But these obstacles should not be insurmountable, provided the process allows for flexibility and equitable burden sharing.

Engaging international negotiations will send the necessary long- term signal to the global power industry that the international community is determined to achieve zero emission power generation world-wide by 2050: it would radically change expectations and investment strategies of power companies as of today. This is crucially important because of the long-term horizon under which the industry operates, power plants being built for a lifetime of 30-60 years.

• Lighting is a major consumer of electricity world-wide. Much of existing lighting continues to be supplied by the venerable, 100 year old, incandescent lamp, which wastes 80 percent of the energy through heat.

Replacing the incandescent lamp by more energy-efficient technologies like the light-emitting diodes (LED) would substantially lower the demand for electricity.

That is why the EU has decided to phase them out. The decision may have been taken too hastily before the practical and cheap alternatives were in the market, but objectively it was the right one.

Other countries have taken similar decisions. The EU should therefore explore the possibility of arriving at a world-wide arrangement that would phase out incandescent lamps, say over the next 10-15 years.

To achieve an effective arrangement it would suffice to get the major 20 producing countries on board. This will be immensely easier than a consensus among almost 200 countries and have a visible effect on global C02 emissions before 2025.

These three “sectors” matter for the global climate; they account for more than one third of global C02 emissions. And their share is bound to rise due to the increasing demand for electricity and mobility. Any effective action would therefore be rapidly visible.

Other sectors with high green house gas emissions might be included in due time.

Aviation comes to mind; it will also have to become C02 emission free before 2050, most probably by means of bio-fuels.

The most urgent sector to be tackled is forests. Deforestation is a plague for the climate and the regional environment that must be addressed without further delay. It cannot wait. It can be handled bilaterally with the forest countries concerned, as had been tried with Equator. Brazil would appear the most propitious case to tackle. In the run-up to Copenhagen the negotiations for a forest deal were quite well advanced. The issue should therefore be brought to a conclusion in the course of the year. It will have a measurable impact on the climate and the trust among the parties.

Of course, this approach focuses only on the supply side. It does not address the issue of externalities. Countries should continue to address this part of the equation by C02 taxation or cap and trade systems. But these do not easily lend themselves to international negotiations and standards.

In 2010 the top priority is to restore confidence and trust in the capacity of the international community to act effectively against climate change.

The international community needs rapid results to regain the confidence lost. China and USA must be brought back into the game.

Quick results are only possible by picking up issues that do not require a consensus among 200 parties. We need “alliances of the willing” to push ahead and build upon.

The EU should take the initiative, very cautiously. The Commission should test member states on the acceptability of such a pragmatic approach, which may offer the chance of some rapid success.

Brussels 22.02.10 Eberhard Rhein

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