31 December 2009: Some progress in 2009 – though not nearly enough

The lack of substantial progress at Copenhagen, though not unexpected, has left many people close to despondency on climate change. There is now a serious danger that they will lose interest. More worrying is the danger that the media will lose interest, leading to politicians doing likewise. Not nearly enough progress has been made this year on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or helping poor countries cope with the now-inevitable changes in climate. However, there have been some genuine and significant steps forward in China, the US, the EU and India. These are four of the top five polluters in terms of annual emissions. The missing country is Russia.

In the EU, according to the European Wind Energy Association developers were on track to install 8.6Gw of new wind capacity in 2009. This is almost exactly the same as the 8.5Gw added in 2008 and shows that the recession has not slowed the shift to a low-carbon economy. It will lift total installed capacity in the 27 EU countries to 73.5Gw. In the US, 5.8Gw of wind power was installed in from January to September, taking the country to over 31Gw in total (see Enel: The USA installed 1,650 MW of wind capacity in 3rd. Quarter 2009). In May, the China Daily newspaper reported that China had passed 12Gw of installed wind capacity, and was expected to reach 20Gw in 2010 (see Interlinked Challenges: China Has Twelve Gigawatts Of Installed Wind Power 2009). A new Chinese law, agreed on 28 December:

… requires power grid operators to buy all the electricity produced by renewable energy generators, in a move that will increase the proportion of energy that comes from renewable sources in coal-dependent China.

(See The Business Times.)

There has also been progress on CCS, though no large-scale plant is yet in operation. In China, a group of investors, including US coal company Peabody Energy, five of China’s largest power companies, two Chinese coal companies and the Chinese government, is constructing GreenGen, a 250Mw pre-combustion CCS plant that is due for completion in 2011. In the US, the Obama administration allocated $2.4 billion to CCS under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package. In July, a project called the FutureGen Alliance, a public-private partnership, was awarded $1 billion to construct a 275Mw pre-combustion coal plant in Illinois. The private sector members of the Alliance will have to contribute an additional $400 to $600 million. Hydrogen Energy International, a joint venture between BP and Rio Tinto, plans to build a 250Mw pre-combustion CCS plant in California. The estimated capital cost for the project is approximately $2.3 billion. The Californian government has awarded $30 million and the US Department of Energy $308m. This project is due to be operational by 2016. The Department of Energy also awarded $100 million to Basin Electric Power Cooperative to retrofit post-combustion to 120Mw of a coal power station in North Dakota, which is due to enter operation in 2011. In October, Energy Secretary Chu also awarded $22 million each to 12 projects – cement and chemical plants, refineries, paper mills and manufacturing facilities. This is to be matched by private funding. The European Economic Recovery Plan allocated €1 billion to CCS and, in September, the European Commission announced that five projects would receive €180 million each and a sixth project €100 million.

The new coalition in Germany, between Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the Free Democrat Party, has reversed the policy to phase out nuclear power. This is good for the climate. In fact, Merkel has described nuclear power as a bridge technology to get us to a fully renewable economy, which is exactly how it should be regarded. However, the FDP is arguing for a reduction in subsidies to renewables, which in Germany have been high and, if they get their way, the ‘bridge’ will be an extremely long one.

The Indian general election returned the Congress Party to government, but with a larger majority. Its Manifesto promised serious action on climate change, which was significant in India, given that there has been significant political controversy on the issue. Soon after the election, the government published an extremely ambitious plan to install 20Gw of solar technology by 2020 – for both electricity generation and water heating. This is only a plan, so needs to be ambitiously and properly implemented, for which India will need financial assistance. Congress is also committed to greater protection of India’s remaining forests, which cover about a quarter of the country.

Talk of forests and finance brings the discussion back to Copenhagen. There was no progress on targets, but a little on the more important issues of finance and forest protection. On finance, countries agreed that, over the next three years, an amount “approaching $30 billion” should be provided by developed countries to developing countries. This will be used both for dealing with the effects of a changing climate (“adaptation”) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“mitigation”). There will be a “balanced allocation” between the two. Japan has promised $11 billion for this, the EU $10.6 billion and the US just $3.6 billion. Obama’s failure to provide significant money – which is not controlled by the US Congress – is his greatest failure yet and the greatest disappointment of Copenhagen.

On forests, the US, UK, France, Japan, Australia and Norway committed $3.5 billion for forest preservation over the next three years. The aim is to make the scheme fully operational and much better funded, from 2013.

Optimism about climate prospects took a further blow yesterday when France’s Constitutional Council declared the French government’s proposed carbon tax unconstitutional. It said that there were too many exemptions for polluters, because 93% of industrial emissions, other than fuel use, would be exempt from the tax as they are already covered by the EU’s emissions trading scheme. The French government has said that it will revise the proposed tax and bring forward a new proposal in January (see BBC News: France to rethink carbon tax plan).

Priorities for 2010

  1. Increased forest protection should be the top priority for next year. It must be declared illegal to purchase illegal timber, which it currently isn’t in the EU. And substantially more money must be offered to developing country nations to enable them to leave forests standing without slowing development.
  2. More money to enable developing countries to develop in a low-carbon way.
  3. Expand and speed up renewable deployment. For the EU, this must include beginning the construction of North Sea and Mediterranean grids.
  4. Speed up CCS demonstration and minimise new coal power stations without CCS. (None should be allowed in developed countries, but some are unavoidable in China, India and other developing nations.)
  5. Engage the Russian government in the climate debate.

The best forum for these discussions is not the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which, because it requires unanimity from all 193 members, is more like the League of Nations than the United Nations. A better forum is the G20. (see Editorial 24 December 2009: G20 better forum for climate than UNFCCC).

The other essential priority is to find a means to control nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear power cannot safely be used as a bridge technology unless the fuel is internationally controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to prevent countries such as Iran using it to make nuclear weapons. This discussion will have to take place in the UN and, to show that they are serious about non-proliferation, the existing nuclear powers must announce that they are prepared to keep their side of the Non-Proliferation Treaty ‘bargain’ and negotiate away all their nuclear weapons.

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