Copenhagen’s Hope for Change

29 November 2009 (Last Updated November 29th, 2009 18:30)

Global accord is needed for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to be a success. Mitch Beedie reports on the challenges that lie in wait.

Copenhagen’s Hope for Change

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December 2009 will see world leaders try to prevent the catastrophic global temperature rise that has been forecast. Negotiators have been preparing for two years and success needs a clear, legally binding agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, limiting each country's greenhouse gas outputs.

The Copenhagen meet should decide on how much so-called developed and developing countries will reduce and limit their emissions respectively, what financial help the developing countries will need and how all the money will be managed. Calls for an agreement are increasingly coming from power producers, too. When asked to build a power station with 40-year lifetime, they need to know what fuel it will use.

Two degrees too much

Climatologists are warning that the limit is a 2°C rise by 2100. Beyond this, and the current models show a combination of large-scale flooding and desertification that would drive millions of people from their homes while at the same time swallowing up huge areas of food producing land.

To prevent that, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that global emissions in 2050 must drop by at least half from 1990 levels. Most reductions must, of course, come from the largest polluters – the industrialised nations and the G8 nations have said they will reduce emissions by 80% for 2050. That is little more than a vague public relations promise, though. Emissions also need to peak by 2020, so action is needed much sooner.

The Group of 77 (G77) represents China, India and the developing nations, and is demanding that by 2020 the developed world cut its emissions by 40%. It makes the reasonable argument that more economically developed nations put the greenhouse gases there, so they should make most cuts. Otherwise, it sees this as just another reason why developing nations should limit their growth to the benefit of those developed nations.

"The primary target must be coal fired power stations, which are the most polluting and least efficient but generate nearly 40N of world electricity."

China is now the world's largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter but only because of its huge population – looking at per-capita emissions, it is close to the world average. India emits less than a quarter of that and over 500 million Indians do not even have access to electricity. Per capita figures are 2 tons in India, 6 in China, 10 in Europe and nearly 25 in the US.

Standing alone, only Norway has accepted the G77 target. The EU has instead committed to a 20% cut by 2020, half that demanded. It has, however, promised 30% if Copenhagen comes to a global agreement and has also called for £90bn a year to be given to countries most in need to develop new energy technologies.

The US and China have recently agreed to set targets for green house gas emissions in December and this could be critical to whether Copenhagen succeeds. Many countries are saying that if the US does not act, then there's not much point them doing anything either.

Greenhouse gas reduction

According to the World Resources Institute, emissions globally come from electricity/heat/fuel for homes and commerce (34% of total), deforestation and land use change (18%), industry (17%), transport (14%), agriculture (13%) and waste (4%).

Electricity generation alone amounts for 17% of global emissions, mainly in buildings and industry. One tenth of the fuel input is used in the generation process and another tenth wasted in transmission and distribution losses. The primary target must be coal fired power stations, which are the most polluting and least efficient but generate nearly 40% of world electricity. Replacing them would also make major cuts in emissions of sulphur and other pollutants.

Industrial emissions have actually declined in many nations since 1990, at the expense of growth in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere. The energy intensive industries have already been forced by energy costs to improve efficiency but much can still be saved in homes and commercial buildings. Much waste comes from poor design of new buildings and poor maintenance of existing ones. The irony is that better design quickly repays for itself and building owners need regulating into saving money.

Transport will be the fastest growing sector, with the International Emergy Agency expecting global emissions to increase by 50% by 2020. That will be much higher in developing countries, with India expecting a near 70% rise and China nearly 150%. Car production is concentrated in a few countries and by a few companies, particularly in the US, EU, Japan and China. Improvements to car fuel efficiency should therefore be relatively easy to regulate. That will be nowhere near enough, though, and improved public transport has to be made a global priority.

Politicians chatter

Investments in renewable power have recently been hit by lower oil prices and the economic downturn. That, if nothing else, tells us energy policy cannot continue to be set on the trading floor. Politicians have historically subsidised high-emissions energy and transport, and encouraged deforestation in the name of free trade.

Some argue that the only really worldwide attempt to encourage renewable energy, via the trading of carbon credits, has been a disaster. Complicated and bureaucratic emissions trading, they argue, has just turned out to be an accounting trick that has wasted huge amounts of money while leaving the basic problems unaddressed.

If no decisions come from Copenhagen, we must all live with the consequences. As climate models become more accurate, they are predicting problems sooner rather than later. Coal plants would be priced out of existence if their true environmental costs were considered. ‘Peak Oil’ appears much closer than official figures have predicted. Once the global recession is through we will again start to see oil and gas price rises as countries race to expand and compete worldwide for dwindling resources.

A way through?

The ‘hydrogen economy’ and carbon capture for power plants are largely just speculation while nuclear energy is based on a vulnerable supply chain. Sooner or later, we need to use energy more efficiently, and use renewable energy and low-impact travel.

Investments in energy improvements and renewable energy already give returns way above bank interest rates. They are in themselves profitable but our collective short-term thinking, or lack of cash, still prefers cheap initial design to a lifetime of lower running expenses. This is something that now only politicians can correct.

"Governments worldwide need to follow the example of Germany and others to bring in attractive feed-in tariffs to encourage small-scale renewable technologies"

Measures have to include the stick of improved regulations but there are plenty of carrots too. Grants to improve energy efficiency pay for themselves many times over and long-term loans to equipment purchasers are easily funded by lower fuel bills. Governments worldwide need to follow the example of Germany and others to bring in attractive feed-in tariffs to encourage small-scale renewable technologies such as photovoltaic plants. Tariffs should reflect the savings from reducing the stress on existing distribution networks.

On top of that, however, we need something akin to the Desertec project that proposes a string of solar thermal systems across desert areas for Europe. Concentrating Solar Thermal Power plants drive steam turbines to generate electricity, with power being fed across high-voltage DC lines.

Such a grid ‘backbone’ would give a stable renewable, pollution-free source of power. Europe has placed a €100bn/year price by 2020 on tackling climate change. That alone would fund two or three €400bn Desertec projects, while at the same time building a raft of power stations into the next generations producing electricity at €0.05/kWh.

Such co-operation could help bring truly sustainable growth to both developed and developing countries. It would create jobs while improving the whole infrastructure. And that – unlike the trillions of dollars worldwide recently thrown to prop up the banking system – would give us something tangible for our money.