Insights into Editorial: Renewables are not enough
14 May 2016
World leaders, on April 22, ratified the global climate agreement reached in Paris last December. The agreement requires 195 countries to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with the goal of not exceeding 1.5°C. The countries have also committed to “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) to limit or reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030.
About the agreement:
The Paris Agreement on climate change is a milestone in global climate cooperation. It is meant to enhance the implementation of the Convention and recognizes the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in the light of different national circumstances.
- The agreement acknowledges the development imperatives of developing countries. The Agreement recognizes the developing countries’ right to development and their efforts to harmonize development with environment, while protecting the interests of the most vulnerable.
- The Paris Agreement recognizes the importance of sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption with developed countries taking the lead, and notes the importance of ‘climate justice’ in its preamble.
- It seeks to enhance the ‘implementation of the Convention‘whilst reflecting the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.
- The objective of the Agreement further ensures that it is not mitigation-centric and includes other important elements such as adaptation, loss and damage, finance, technology, capacity building and transparency of action and support.
- Pre-2020 actions are also part of the decisions. The developed country parties are urged to scale up their level of financial support with a complete road map to achieve the goal of jointly providing US $ 100 billion by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation by significantly increasing adaptation finance from current levels and to further provide appropriate technology and capacity building support.
What’s good about this agreement?
- Shared responsibilities: Unlike previous agreements which put all the responsibility for reducing emissions on rich countries, in the Paris Agreement, all 196 signatories agreed that every country must take action, while acknowledging that richer countries should start immediately and cut emissions more steeply, while poorer countries’ contributions will depend on their individual situations.
- A “ratchet mechanism”: This is the technical term for the agreement to submit new pledges by 2020. It’s the most important victory within the agreement, as many large developing nations, like India and Indonesia, were reluctant to agree to a system that would pressure them to up their ambition within the next decade. The ratchet mechanism requires countries to return to the table in 2020 and spell out their plans for 2025 to 2030. This creates the opportunity for the world to potentially put itself on a course to stay below 2 C.
- Ambitious abstract goals: The Paris Agreement includes the goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees C. But at the behest of the most vulnerable countries, such as the small island states, it also goes further, calling for efforts to stay below 1.5 C. It even requests that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produce a report on how we could stay below 1.5 C.
However, this agreement is far from sufficient. Why?
- Various studies show that even if all INDC targets were achieved, the world would still be heading towards eventual warming of some 2.7-3.4°C above pre-industrial levels.
- Over the past decade, energy productivity has grown by only 0.7% annually, and the share of zero-carbon energy rose by only 0.1 percentage point per year. Moreover, even if the INDCs were fully implemented, these annual growth rates would reach only 1.8% and 0.4 percentage points, respectively.
What needs to be done?
- To keep warming well below 2°C, emissions in 2030 must be more than 30% below those envisaged in the INDCs. We must also reduce energy-related emissions by 70% from 2010 levels, with further cuts needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2060.
- This will require both an improvement in energy productivity (the amount of income produced per unit of energy consumed) of at least 3% per year and the rapid decarbonization of energy supply, with the share of zero-carbon energy increasing by at least one percentage point each year.
- Solar power can make a difference here. Solar power costs have fallen 80% since 2008. In some places, new supply contracts have set prices as low as $0.06 per kilowatt hour, making solar power fully competitive with coal and natural gas.
- Investments in renewable capacity need to be matched by accelerated progress in battery technology, or by other tools to match electricity demand to intermittent supply.
- Road transport and aviation, which currently rely almost entirely on liquid fossil fuels, account for 30% of total energy consumption. Decarbonization of these activities will require electrification or the use of hydrogen or biofuels.
- Heating buildings is another area where major changes are needed. Here, the more widespread use of zero-carbon electricity, instead of fossil-fuel-based energy, could have a major impact. But there are also important opportunities to design and construct buildings and cities that are substantially more energy-efficient.
- Energy use by heavy industry presents challenges that are often ignored. Metals, chemicals, cement and plastics are vital building blocks of the modern economy, and involve processes that cannot be easily electrified. Decarbonization may instead require the application of carbon capture and storage technologies, while newly designed building materials could reduce demand for carbon-intensive inputs.
- Governments have a vital role to play, but so, too, do incumbent fossil-fuel-based energy companies and new-entrant companies deploying or developing new technologies. NGOs can help to identify required policies and hold governments and companies to account. Individual consumers are also important, because their behaviour shapes energy demand.
The challenge now is to find an economically sensible path that enables emerging economies to fulfil their growing energy needs, while ensuring that the world meets its climate objectives. It is technologically possible. But it will require action by many very different actors. Unfortunately, climate change isn’t waiting. As the global temperature rises, glaciers are retreating, shrinking polar ice is threatening Arctic species, river and lake ice has been breaking up earlier, plants and animals are shifting ranges, and flowering cycles for trees are occurring earlier in the season. The signing of the accord, while historic, won’t solve those problems. It merely starts the world on the right, though very belated, path. The world needs to accelerate the pace.