6 Aug 2015

Climate Change Science and Negotiations

Students recently completed the Climate Change Science and Negotiations Course organised over 3 months by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) led by Professors Jeffrey Sachs and Emmanuel Guerin. The aim of the course was to give its students a better understanding of the science of climate change and the complexities in potential negotiations so that they can become intelligent advocates in the battle to secure fair global targets in Paris in December this year.

Whilst scientific consensus is overwhelming that global warming is real and manmade and that catastrophic climate change will result if we continue on the business as usual trajectory, the world has yet to seriously address the issue despite many Conference of Party (COP) talks. This is because there are organisations and individuals like Exxon Mobile and Rupert Murdoch who pay for climate change denials to confuse the public about the science, and also that previous attempts to effect a legally binding framework  have been paralysed as countries have either ignored their commitments (like Australia and Canada) or legislation was stalled (USA).

Global Warming happens because the earth’s natural balancing of the suns radiation is affected by mans excessive loading of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere such that outgoing radiation is reflected back to earth. Some of the gases can be resident in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Carbon Dioxide (co2) is the biggest emitter and one of the longest resident with coal 22% more polluting than oil and 685% more than natural gas.  Land use is the biggest direct cause and electricity generation the largest indirect cause of co2 emissions.  

Although energy efficiency has increased in the last few decades the population continues to rise at a dramatic rate with a subsequent increase in demand for energy. If we continue on a business as usual trajectory scientists predict that the global average temperature will increase up to 8c by the end of century with consequential increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather. UNEP stated in 1989 that 2 degrees centigrade (2c) was an upper limit beyond which the risks of grave damage to ecosystems and of non linear responses are expected to increase rapidly. The window of opportunity to effect this limit is closing fast, so how do we prevent global warming beyond 2c and decouple mankind from fossil fuels?

The drivers of co2 emissions are mainly driven by energy and carbon intensity so it is necessary to increase energy and carbon conservation, but how do we do that?  Possible solutions include more efficient vehicles using advanced biofuels like algae, increased use of electric vehicles, smart city transport systems, reductions in private transport, creation of more energy efficient equipment and materials in buildings, improved efficiency of heat and waste systems in industry, increase of renewable and use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) alongside fossil fuel burning. We need to lower carbon electricity and  switch fuels from high to low carbon but in an economic way such that we reach Grid Parity or when an alternative energy source can generate electricity less than or equal to the cost of purchasing from the electricity grid.

The cost of solar panels has already drastically reduced through consumer demand but managing power systems of renewable energy is a challenge as the energy delivered is generally intermittent and we currently rely on base level power provided by coal and gas to fill the shortfall of energy at peak times and when renewable energy is not being created (eg at night or when there is no wind).  We need to improve our energy storage options, use CCS and Hydro Electric Power (HEP), and manage power demand more effectively. Nuclear Power is an option but there is public resistance through waste management and safety which have to be addressed. Deep Decarbonisation(DD) technologies are within reach but commercial readiness has to be accelerated. We can learn from previous technological successes and set up roadmaps with clear goals & timelines, involving both the public and private sectors. Industry must both compete and co-operate assisted by grants issued on a highly competitive basis and Intellectual Property must be shared. Road maps do help mobilise public, private & expert communities.

Research led by Professor Emmanuel Guerin through teams in 15 countries worldwide has shown that DD is feasible, with a pivotal role played by electricity, but that different countries would rely on different pathways to change to a low carbon output. For instance Australia, Mexico, South Africa and South Korea would focus on solar energy whilst Canada, China, France, Germany and Japan on wind power.  The research concluded that detailed roadmaps are required for DD yet very few countries have looked at it to date. Long term backcasting to 2050 is critical (i.e. this is where we want to get to by 2050, what are the steps we need to take to get there?). Solutions will require shared global commitment and a sustained public/private effort to introduce low carbon technologies in all countries.

Africa historically had no access to energy resources during the industrial revolution and later little hydrocarbon resource. Factors like wooden stoves, kerosene lamps, back breaking labour and malaria have all impacted on development. Africa needs to implement a range of improvements at the local level like much safer cook stoves, pumping water through low cost solar power, low cost 2 wheel tractors and at the continental level like the Inga Falls Project, a massive hydro project in DCR, solar panels across the Sahel, use of geothermal energy in the great rift valley and exploring natural gas off the East Africa coast. The continent needs to establish a cross-continental grid system.

There are many challenges in the approaching talks in Paris but we need to aim for a PARETO improvement – where all parties are better off, where we combine efficiency and fairness in the negotiations, where side financial payments are made to share the burden in fair way. We also need to consider what we mean by fair – for instance should assessments include historical emissions (the US was the biggest emitter) , present emitter (China is the biggest now) and should we consider the ultimate beneficiary of the fossil fuel (should Nigeria pay for the oil it produces or the countries the oil is delivered to?).  

For an agreement in Paris to be cemented and real progress made we need to institutionalise the agreements so that we can effectively monitor and verify they are being met. There has to be transparency, the ability to check on interim steps, the closing down of options to renege, and an option to enforce. DD is a long term process, costing a lot now for benefits that will mostly be felt in the future, complicated by uncertain costs and gains (e.g. how much will research and development into effective CCS be and how long will it take to deliver?),  country asymmetries (every country will have different pathways and targets to be reached). Most importantly trust is critical, and the particular powerful interests of oil companies has to be addressed.

Paul Shaw