Rhein on Energy and Climate

At the margin of the APEC meeting in Beijing November 8-10th 2014 the US and Chinese Presidents have concluded an “historic” deal on how to address the common challenge of climate change.

China will stabilise its green house emissions starting in 2030, while the USA will reduce its emissions by 26-28 per cent until 2025. This deal has raised hopes for what is considered the decisive Paris Climate Conference in December 2015. Other major climate polluters are expected to come up with meaningful commitments, after the EU, USA and China, being jointly responsible for more than half of global emissions, have started to make offers.

From an equity perspective, the deal seems correct: bearing a historical responsibility for rising emissions and unacceptably high per capita emissions developed countries, especially the USA, must go ahead with ambitious reductions. But emerging countries must also come on board their share in global emissions having started to exceed that of developed countries.

From a climate perspective the “offers” are insufficient.

According the latest “synthesis” assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change time is running out for keeping the global temperature within a two degree Celsius increase. Humanity must not emit more than 1000 Gt of C02 in the future, one quarter of the known coal reserves (!), and undertake substantial emissions reductions in the next few decades. Without doing so global temperatures are most likely to rise by more than two centigrade until 2100, a nightmare perspective.

The intentions of the three big players therefore lack the necessary ambition. Our top leaders are too much focused on their short- term political tasks and overlook that – for the first time in history – they have to act within a multi-decade perspective.

Even the EU, the pioneer of climate policy, has been too prudent with its 2030 objective of a 40 per cent green house gas reduction over 1990. To reach its own ambition of reducing its emissions by 80-95 per cent until 2050 it should aim at 50-55 per cent reduction by 2030.

This could be possible by complementing its system of emission capture&trading by “emission performance standards” comparable to those introduced for cars and light vehicles by EU and USA. The USA and UK will apply these also to reduce emissions in new power plants and put high hopes in them for a substantial reduction of their GHG emissions.

The US objective for 2025 looks ambitious, but would still leave the US with unacceptably high per capita emissions of around 10 tons per year. Unfortunately, the US government has little leverage to improve its offer considering the Republican majority in the Congress adamantly opposed to any type climate policy.

The eyes should therefore be directed to China.

The stabilisation of its green house gas emissions starting in 2030 will be the result of slower economic growth, an impressive deployment of hydro, wind and solar energies (20 per cent of total energy demand by 2030!), and more low-emission cars &e-vehicles, complemented by closures of the most polluting coal power plants in metropolitan areas in response to growing calls for clean air.

For a country having totally focused on economic growth during the last four decades that is quite impressive, but still not good enough for the biggest emitter with more than a quarter of global emissions and per capita emissions exceeding 7 tons.

It is not easy for China to rapidly implement effective remedies. The best ones are phasing out of most the coal-power plants in favour of lower emission gas-power plants and investing much more in energy efficiency.

In conclusion, the recent announcements by world’s biggest three emitters do not augur well for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference and the earth’s future climate.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 17/11/2014


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