Why Paris Climate Summit Won’t Be A Success Without Ramping Up Renewable Energy

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Originally published on Power To The People.
By Stefan Schurig

Wet feet. I knew I would be getting wet feet. But soap bubbles? One of my first actions as a volunteer activist for Greenpeace was sitting at a fake conference table with a suit and no shoes in the shallow waters of Lake Wannsee in Berlin. With blowing soap bubbles around. What sounds like a joke was actually a well-orchestrated picture opportunity created for the media to symbolise the beginning of the first UN climate conference in Berlin, in 1995. The COP 1 (Conference of the Parties) was chaired by the then Minister of Environment Ms. Angela Merkel who was hardly known by any politician and who had taken office just a few months before.

IMG_20151202_124402-1Our message was that urgent action is needed to address global warming. And we wanted to showcase the irony that while policymakers were talking about the threat of climate change, global CO2 emissions would continue to raise at an unprecedented scale. Impacts of climate change, symbolised here by the rise of the sea level, were actually already happening. Since then I have been to many more climate summits up to now.

Retrospectively much of this image unfortunately proved right. In 1995, global CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was at 360 ppm. Much below the 400 ppm of today. World population was about 2 billion people less and global energy demand one third lower than today. It seems that 20 years of negotiating did not create the desperately needed change to move away from an industrialisation based on the combustion of fossil resources.

The series of UN climate summits hit rock bottom in Copenhagen in 2009 when Heads of States could not even agree upon any kind of binding emission reduction target to follow the Kyoto protocol. The idea that the United Nations would be able to agree upon a binding roadmap to limit global CO2 emission in fact died in the cold days of COP15.

The most important currency of the UN climate talks is the commitments to reduce carbon emissions – and the credit after 20 years of UNFCCC negotiations is close to zero.

The Kyoto protocol at least led to a first commitment period 2008-2012 where 37 industrialized countries and the European Community committed to reduce GHG emissions to an average of only 5% against 1990 levels. Also this did neither include the USA nor China, which happen to be the countries with the highest CO2 emissions. The achievements after 20 years of negotiating are therefore by far too weak to curb global emission trends. The UNFCCC was actually expected by more and more voices from the civil society to either give up its consensus principal -which is part of the DNA of the UN- or its efforts to achieve any binding agreement following the Kyoto-Protocol.

Yet it seems that the negotiations in Paris will experience a new dynamic and end with a success – at least for the UNFCCC. If it is also a success for the climate remains to be seen. There are obvious reasons for that such as the fact that China and the USA have now already bilaterally agreed to limit their CO2 emissions. But that’s not even the biggest difference.

The COP 21 will end with a success mainly because expectations on the summit and on the UN’s role have changed. It’s the first COP where the currency of success is not binding emission reductions anymore but a framework for so called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCS) first decided at the summit in Warsaw in 2013. This bears repetition: it is not the legally binding agreements anymore that should eventually result from the UNFCCC negotiations but a framework to implement and monitor intended pledges shaped by each Member States. The role of the UNFCCC will be to set a long-term goal, say 2050, to encourage ambitious upgrades for the INDCs, to coordinate the burden sharing and to verify the implementation.

If you fail to achieve results matching expectations then start to adapt expectations to the most possible results – this is understandable albeit not acceptable. Taking a closer look into the quality of the INDCs so far submitted explains why:

The current list of INDCs will not save the climate – unless there is a much stronger role for renewable energy!

By the start of the negotiations 155 INDCs representing the reduction contributions of 182 nations had been submitted. Scientific assessments concluded that they still fall short of reaching the 2°C or even a more ambitious 1.5°C target. Evaluations see us on track for a 2.7°C (Climate Action Tracker 2015) or a 3°C (UNEP 2015) warming by the end of the century. Also the quality of the various INDCs is as different as it can get. Some of the pledges are in fact without any substance regarding concrete steps to reduce emissions or by when. Some even claim fossil fuels to be clean energy. Others still entail potential for major disputes such as India and its plan to increase its nuclear power capacity by a factor of 8. This is economically, politically and technically highly questionable given the time, huge amount of money and fuel resources needed to build a nuclear power plant.

First and foremost, the INDCs have to ramp up renewable energy targets

More precisely one can say that the level of commitment represented by the INDC pledges has to be raised dramatically. Firstly, Member States have to set far more ambitious targets for renewable energy. So far, 71 INDCs include quantified renewable targets (and 2 claim an almost fully renewable electricity supply), 32 plan  to increase renewables but don’t give quantified targets, 31 mention renewable energy but don’t give any target and 16 do not mention renewables at all.  Only  10(!) actually refer to Feed- in Tariff policies (just 3 of them report to have implemented it already) and only 8 out the 182 countries have so far set the 100% Renewable Energy target.  A good start, maybe. But it’s far from being able to stimulate the transformation of the energy sector or to send signals to investors to confidently invest in solar and wind.

The most positive elements so far are that the world´s most populated countries China and India actually have very concrete plans for scaling up renewable energy. The largest increase in installed renewable capacity comes from here: China plans to install more 104 GW of wind and 72 GW of solar by 2020. India plans to install more than 36 GW of wind and 96 GW of solar by 2022.

What really gives me hope is that by building on the INDC pledges, the UNFCCC inevitably draws more attention to the astonishing – and in some parts of the world, hugely encouraging – success of renewable energy. Regardless the attempt to reach consensus on CO2 emission reduction targets at the UNFCCC level, the global energy sector, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, experienced some revolutionary developments in the last 20 years. Renewable energy continues to grow despite a dramatic decline of the oil prices with investments outpacing net investments in fossil fuel power plants (GSR, 2014, REN 21). Analysis of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) show „that, with the right policies, renewable energy could generate more 24 million jobs worldwide by 2030. And if “environmental and human health externalities are priced into the global energy mix over time, the renewable energy transition would result in net savings”. (IRENA, 2015)

While up to now this development has almost been ignored by the UNFCCC it seems to become a serious subject of the climate negotiations itself. First time the negotiations actually host a so called ‘renewable energy track’ coordinated by IRENA, REN 21, world´s highly influential renewable energy network and others. Many civil society organisations officially call for 100% renewable energy targets and for an ambitious renewable energy mandate as part of the climate treaty.

In conclusion, coming back to the analogy of the rising flood: COP 21 in Paris marks the chance for a new era of climate negotiations. However, if it really wants to deliver more than just a new piece in the narrative of the climate negotiations it has to find mechanisms to hold Member States accountable for their commitments. Moreover, the INDCs need to be corresponding to what is needed in the real world to keep the global temperatures under the 2 degrees benchmark. In order to do this, Member States have to drastically raise the bar for renewable energy in their INDCs, set 100% renewable energy targets and come up with a convincing roadmap on how to implement it.

Stefan Schurig is the Director of Climate Energy at the World Future Council Foundation.

Reprinted with permission.

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2 thoughts on “Why Paris Climate Summit Won’t Be A Success Without Ramping Up Renewable Energy

  • Yes humans appear to be very slow learners at times. The problem with that is that not us but future generations will have to pay for our mistakes.
    On the other hand it would be very interesting to know how many people and how many communities have done things to reduce their own emissions and to go with RE and be more sustainable and even fully carbon neutral.
    I have read some of those success stories and some for those go back years and even decades! :))
    With some people and communities setting those good examples and others following that is a good start, we (humans) will just need to repeat that on a grander scale (worldwide)!

  • The Paris agreement will precisely provide a mechanism for activists to press for improvements in a very concrete way. The INDCs (future NDCs) are serious public commitments by governments, to other governments and their own people. They are also inadequate, with few exceptions like Bhutan. Their weaknesses are also public, and provide points for criticism. What is India increasing coal burn? Why can’t China peak before 2030? Why is the US target so unambitious? Why is the UK slashing subsidies to renewables prematurely? Etc. etc. Go to it.

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