Rhein on Energy and Climate

Fossil fuels, in particular coal, are starting to come under public pressure from many quarters in the world. That is the most positive news for the 21st international climate conference that will take place in Paris in December 2015.

At its May 2015 meeting at Elmau, Germany, the G7 have committed themselves to de-carbonise the global economy in the course of the century and reduce emissions by 40-70 per cent until 2050 over 2010. For the first time, top political leaders of the rich world are taking climate change as a vital challenge and call for action; and business leaders start to reflect on how to turn this vision into reality.

The USA and China, the world’s biggest emitter countries have, for the first time, achieved small reductions of their emissions in 2013/14, essentially thanks to the closure of coal-fired power plants. In both countries health considerations and concerns about the impacts of climate change have driven these developments and led to their November 2014 agreement for closer cooperation on energy and climate policy and the Chinese promise to peak its emissions by 2030.Both countries are betting on higher energy efficiency and a higher share of gas in their energy mix at the expense of coal.

Another surprising and positive development is taking place in the financial sector. Investment funds, insurance companies and other financial institutions have started selling their fossil fuel assets. The most spectacular move has been the vote by the Norwegian Parliament last May to instruct the Norwegian Sovereign Fund, the biggest on earth, to divest $ 8 billion invested in 122 companies whose business depends for at least 30 per cent on coal. Following suit the Swedish government has advised its state-owned utility company Vattenfall to divest its stake in the German lignite industry.

These moves are motivated essentially by the apprehension that governments may introduce carbon capture and storage (CCS) or even put an end to the use of coal. This would make coal more costly or force investors in coal mines and coal power plants to write-offs. Shares in fossil-fuels, mining and utilities, are already feeling these anxieties. Their prices have suffered a relative decline.

Add to this the surprising initiative by six big European oil and gas companies in early June 2015, criticising the low prices for emission rights under the EU emission trading system, in the order of seven Euro per ton. The market would need a price of $ 40/ton to send the right signals.This is a well-know criticism, but the EU is finding it difficult to reduce the emission cap to a level generating higher market prices, though the EU intention to reduce the emission cap to two per cent annually might give a boost to the carbon price.

The prospect of the Paris Climate conference has thus injected a new tonality and a new sense of urgency into the climate debate. That is positive, but it will be necessary to undertake a concrete follow-up by the main emitter countries. A

Brussels 30.06. 2015 Eberhard Rhein

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