Archive for the ‘Low carbon economy’ Category

Finding the way to Paris from Lima

With the choice of a high road and a low road from Lima to Paris, the Parties seem to have selected the dirt track off to the side, replete with rocks, obstacles, difficult terrain and an uncertain destination. However, the map they have crafted in Lima, while full of options and dead ends, does at least have some clear pointers to the outcome that is actually needed. The question is whether or not these are followed.

The Lima call for climate action turned out to be a hard won outcome, with the talks extending into Sunday morning as negotiators struggled to reach agreement over one issue in particular that has dogged the process since its very beginnings in 1992 – the respective roles of developed and developing countries. Many commentators believed that the negotiations in Durban in 2011 had, at least to some extent, relegated this issue to the history books.

In particular, Professor Robert Stavins of the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston, said in his 2011 report on Durban;

It focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020. Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or “distributional equity,” which have – in recent years – become code words for targets for the richest countries and a blank check for all others.

In the aftermath of Lima, the flavour of differentiation has reappeared and even some of the words. The call for climate action now incorporates a clear reference to “common but differentiated responsibilities“, albeit with the addition taglines of “respective capabilities” and “in light of different national circumstances“. Professor Stavins was quick off the mark with an assessment of Lima, but still maintained that the intent of Durban remained;

. . . . the fact remains that a new way forward has been established in which all countries participate and which therefore holds promise of meaningful global action to address the threat of climate change.

It is difficult to agree with this given the recent negotiations. By contrast, Jonathan Grant of PWC referred to the final day of Lima as “trench warfare mentality”. While it is certainly the case that all countries are still required to submit INDCs of some description, the allowable range of options and structure to pick from has broadened considerably. Notably, Parties “may include” details such as quantifiable information and time frames, rather than the previous wording of “shall include”.

Adaptation planning is strengthened considerably, with this subject now highlighted in the opening lines of the Lima text and also referenced clearly in the context of INDCs. For developed countries this probably has little meaning in terms of their own actions, but for a number of developing countries this could be interpreted as a call for additional financial assistance from developed countries simply to build national infrastructure. The Loss and Damage issue also resurfaced with specific mention in the Lima text. These two apparent concessions may turn out to be a high price to pay for retaining some semblance of the Durban mitigation philosophy.

The intensity with which the developed / developing country issue erupted in the last hours of the Lima COP raises valid questions about the negotiations over the coming year. Leaving this particular issue still looking for a solution in Paris itself may be a burden too great for those final days, but it could also be that no matter how much effort is put into solving it in the interim, it will nevertheless emerge again in the last hours in 12 months time simply because negotiations tend to do things like this.

Looking more positively at the Lima call for climate action, the 40 page annex, “Elements for a draft negotiating text“, throws up some interesting tidbits but also a host of negotiating options which will need to be resolved. Two tidbits of note are;

  1. The mention of carbon pricing in the text; “Acknowledging that carbon pricing is a key approach for cost-effectiveness of the cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. The reference on several occasions of an end-goal of net-zero anthropogenic emissions; “Also recognizing that scenarios consistent with a likely chance of holding the global average temperature increase to below 2 °C relative to pre-industrial levels include substantial cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and net emission levels near zero gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent or below in 2100.

The carbon pricing mention is almost certainly the result of the recent tireless work of the World Bank in getting this critical subject back on the global agenda, but the reference is rather empty in that no strong follow-up text supports it. Rather, there are several vague references to the use of markets and mechanisms.

The “net zero” reference though is quite bold, in that even if this century sees a sharp reduction is emissions, a net zero goal is much more challenging. Residual emissions from agriculture, industrial processes, land use changes and some level of direct fossil fuel use will likely remain well into the 22nd century if not beyond that, which means at a minimum some large scale application of carbon capture and storage at some point in the future.

There was much more to Lima than just the last hours of tense standoff politics, but that is what the world will likely focus on in the coming days. The draft negotiating text sets out some clear options for the future, although if the weakest of these is picked in every instance the end result will have hardly been worth the effort. However, there is also text there that doesn’t have options, so that may well see the light of day in Paris. This is the case for some of the “net zero emissions” wording and also the need for Parties to “develop low emission strategies” and “maintain commitments / contributions / actions at all times“.

As such, there remain a few reasons to be hopeful.

Did the UN Summit shift the dial?

The UN Climate Summit has come and gone and leaders from many countries have made announcements, pledges or at least offered moral support. But are we any better off as a result? Reflecting on the last few days of meetings, events, panels and speeches in New York, I would have to argue for the “yes” case. As such, it contributes another piece to the Paris jigsaw.

UN Climate Summit Jigsaw

Although nothing that was formally pledged or offered is likely to make a tangible difference to global emissions in the medium term, one subject has resurfaced in a major way that can: carbon pricing. While there was still a focus on efficiency and renewable energy at many events, the need to implement policy to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions came through loud and clear. In recent months this has been led by the World Bank and they were able to announce in New York that 73 countries and some 1000 companies have signed their Statement, Putting a Price on Carbon, which is an extraordinary result for just a few months of concerted effort.

Given that this was a UN event rather than a national event, the focus naturally shifted to the global story, with an emphasis on how the Paris 2015 agreement might accelerate the shift to carbon pricing and a carbon market that operated globally. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) held a number of events around the city outlining its ideas on how this might happen.

Its kickoff was an event on Monday afternoon, the day before the Summit, where a team led by Professor Rob Stavins of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University presented new work on linking various carbon emission mitigation approaches. The work suggests that such linkage could be the foundation mechanism behind a globally networked carbon market and can be found in summary here. It illustrates how even quite different approaches to mitigation might link and then deliver the economic benefits associated with a larger more liquid market.

But if this approach is to be adopted, the big question that would still need to be addressed is how the Paris agreement might actually facilitate it. IETA offered some thinking on is, with an outline proposal that even included some basic treaty text to enable such a process. Given that the 2015 agreement will almost certainly be structured around INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, the text proposal needed to embrace this concept and work with it, rather than attempting to impose a carbon price or carbon market structure by diktat. The basic reason for trading in a market is to exchange goods or services and optimise revenue and / or lower costs as a result, so the text simply suggested that parties (nations) could be offered the ability to exchange and transfer mitigation effort (INDCs) should they (or companies within their economies) wish to do so, but requires that it be recorded in some form of carbon reduction unit. The proposal by IETA is as follows;

Cooperation between Parties in realizing their Contribution

  1. Parties may voluntarily cooperate in achieving their mitigation contributions.
  2. A unified international transfer system is hereby established.

a.  A Party may transfer portions of its defined national contribution to one or more other Parties through carbon units of its choice.
b.  Transfers and receipts of units shall be recorded in equivalent carbon reduction terms.

There could be many variations on this theme, but the idea is to establish the ability to trade and require a carbon unit accounting of it if and when it takes place. Of course many COP decisions will be required in years to come to fully flush this out.

What was interesting about this proposal was the reaction it got from those closer to the negotiating process. Rather than simply acknowledging it, one meeting in New York saw several people debating the wording as if the formal negotiation was underway. I understand that this was exactly the reaction IETA were looking for and hopefully it bodes well for the development of market mechanisms within the Paris outcome.

There were of course other themes running through the various events. The new business coalition, We Mean Business, was actively marketing its new report which attempts to make the case that emission reduction strategies in the business sector can deliver returns on investment approaching 30%. This is a rather misleading claim in that it is primarily focussing on efficiency improvements in certain sectors, which of course factors in the local cost of energy, but particularly electricity. There is no doubt that reducing electricity consumption can lead to improved competitiveness and growth, hence a very attractive ROI, but this is very different to a real reduction in emissions that actually delivers benefits globally. This is a major theme of my recent book. The problem with such claims is that they shift attention away from the much more difficult task of actually reducing emissions to the extent that cumulative atmospheric carbon dioxide is impacted; such reductions require real heavy lifting as delivered through the use of carbon capture and storage.

Overall, It was an interesting week, framed by 300,000 demonstrators on Sunday and a plethora of world leaders speaking at the UN on Tuesday. Just maybe, this was the start of something meaningful.

A huge turnout in New York

I am in New York for Climate Week, which includes the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday. Sunday saw an enormous turnout for the People’s Climate March as can be seen from a few of my pictures below.

Climate march 1 (small)

Climate march 2 (small)

Climate march 3 (small)

Climate march 4 (small)

Climate march 5 (small)

Climate march 6 (small)

Climate march 7 (small)

Climate march 8 (small)

Climate march 9 (small)

Climate march 10 (small)

Energy reality meets Climate Reality

In its enthusiasm to spread the word about the rapid uptake of renewable sources of energy, the Climate Reality Project recently circulated the picture below. It references the amount of wind energy, in particular, that is now being generated in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein.

Climate Reality Renewable Energy

This is Germany’s northernmost state and borders both the North Sea and the Baltic, so benefits from the windy climate that this geography offers. It is well known as Germany’s windiest area

Schleswig-Holstein

In recent years and as part of the overall push to generate more renewable energy in Germany, considerable wind energy capacity has been installed in this region. While the current level of generation from wind is laudable, this is far from 100% renewable energy. The actual milestone that the state has reached was more accurately described as follows;

The Northern German coastal State of Schleswig-Holstein will be able to mathematically meet its electricity demand fully with renewable energy sources this year if wind yields reach at least average levels, Robert Habeck, Minister of Energy said when presenting a new study last week (May 2014).

This means that the amount of wind (and solar) electricity generated in Schleswig-Holstein will be equal to total demand, but these may not match in terms of timing. At certain times the state will export surplus wind generated electricity into the grid and at other times it will need to draw from the grid to meet its needs, particularly during periods of little wind. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement, even though it highlights the need for a substantial backup system for renewable electricity generation.

But there is a second major reality associated with “100% renewable energy” statements. We live in a global economy that is only partly powered by electricity, to the extent that even if this electricity is generated entirely from renewable sources, the percentage of renewable energy in the final energy mix will still be less than 20% (see below). Even in OECD countries where electricity is more widely used, this only rises by a few percentage points.

Global final energy 2011

The largest slice of final energy (i.e. energy that is used by the final consumer for the delivery of an energy service, e.g. mobility) is oil, used mainly for mobility in road vehicles, planes, trains and ships. Natural gas and coal are also very large, used primarily for industrial processes such as steel making, chemical plants and similar. Natural gas is also used extensively throughout the world as a residential fuel for boilers and direct home heating.

Coming back to Schleswig-Holstein, the actual percentage of renewable energy in the final mix is probably higher than most areas, not just because of its renewable electricity production but also because of the availability of biomass from the agricultural sector. In Germany as a whole, even if all the electricity was sourced from renewable energy (but it isn’t) and adding to this the biofuel and waste energy sources, a level of ~27% renewable energy would be reached. For Schleswig-Holstein with its current level of renewable generation, that probably translates to ~30% today.

That’s an impressive feat, but it isn’t 100%.

MIT takes a view on a new climate agreement

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In my most recent post outlining ten reasons why the global 2° C goal is more difficult than most commentators imagine, I referenced a new MIT report, Expectations for a New Climate Agreement, which looks at the prospects for the expected Paris COP21 agreement actually changing the current global emissions pathway. The findings don’t give a lot to be hopeful about, but nevertheless are worthy of further review.

The work has been carried out by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, a unique coming together of disciplines ranging from atmospheric chemistry to macro-economics, all under one roof. The team has developed considerable modelling expertise, which also combines the aforementioned disciplines to allow policy feedback to impact emissions and therefore the climate model itself. For the sake of transparency, Shell is a sponsor of the Joint Program.

The first stumbling block the researchers hit in trying to assess what Paris might deliver was the current lack of detail or even a basic outline of the scope of the deal; this with just 15 months to go. While it is now widely assumed that COP21 will deliver a bottom up agreement based on contributions at a national level, there is almost no information available on accounting periods, review options, the nature of a contribution (e.g., reduction quantity, mitigation action, adaptation effort, financial aid, capacity building, technology transfer, R&D effort), terms of compliance, extension provisions and so on. Rather, all this had to be assumed, with the consequence of considerable uncertainty around the MIT findings. For example, MIT focus on a target date of 2030 for the first round of contributions, but continue the simulation of the effects of assumed contributions through to 2050.

A reference case is presented which sits within the RCP 8.5 range, the equivalent of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 exceeding 1000 ppm over the long term. This represents a 4+°C scenario by the end of the century.

Electricity generation is the single largest emitting sector in most countries and therefore features first in the resulting analysis. The MIT team argue that the majority of policy effects on emissions can be covered with just two options: controls on coal-fired generation and renewable energy mandates. In the case of coal, various regions and countries are assumed to pledge restrictions in coal generation, as outlined in the table below. Crucially though, large future users such as India are not expected to make a pledge of this type.

MIT Coal Assumptions

Renewable energy is also expected to grow strongly, with the EU reaching a 35% share in electricity generation by 2050, with other regions following, albeit not as aggressively.

MIT Renewable Portfolio Assumptions

In the transport sector, efficiency is the trend to watch, with vehicle efficiency improving by 2% per annum from 2020 in developed countries and by 1% per annum in the rest of the world. Similarly, in the commercial transport sector, a constant focus on efficiency in trucking fleets sees emissions between 10 and 20% lower than the reference case by 2050. However, the sector remains oil based for the entire period.

Efficiency is also the major driver in reducing household emissions from the reference case, with developed countries leading the way and achieving a 20% differential by 2050. However, for other parts of the world this falls to as low as a 5% improvement over 30 years.

Significant improvements are also assumed for land use change emissions and methane emissions.

The effect of all this is noticeable, but growth in global emissions still continues through to 2050, although at a slower pace than the reference scenario. MIT have 2050 CO2-eq emissions at about 71 Gt, vs. their estimate of 56 Gt in the year of the agreement, i.e. 2015. This outcome is compared with two other projections in the figure below. One is the Reference case used throughout this analysis. Also shown, for comparison purposes, is their estimate of emissions to 2050 if commitments made in Copenhagen are met in 2020 and sustained thereafter. By this analysis, the expected contributions from current negotiations will bring the nations part way toward an RCP 4.5 pathway (a median global temperature increase of 1.8°C over this century or about 2.6°C above the pre-industrial level) but will also leave much to be done in subsequent efforts.

MIT Reductions

The issue of subsequent efforts and the nature of any review process is where the MIT analysis carries its starkest warning. The paper notes that if an agreement is reached in 2015, going into effect by 2020, the earliest review of performance along the way might not be before 2025. In this case, an effort to formulate the next agreement under the Climate Convention, or a tightening of COP-21 agreements, would not start until 2025 or after, with new targets set for a decade or more after that. If this expectation is correct, then global emissions as far out as 2045 or 2050 will be heavily influenced by achievements in the negotiations over the next 18 months.

Finally, the analysis calls for a common pricing regime as a preference to individual national actions conducted in isolation. The benefit here is a simple one, a lower overall cost for the global economy. Alternatively, for the same cost, greater ambition could be realized.

Based on the MIT work it would appear that negotiators and their national governments still have a long way to go to be able to say that they have a deal and set of actions that is effectively dealing with anthropogenic warming of the climate system.

A recent story in The Guardian expressed some optimism that “humans will rise to the challenge of climate change”. Ten reasons were given to be hopeful, but not one of them mentioned the climate basics such as a carbon price or carbon capture and storage. Rather, the offerings were largely tangential to the reality of rising CO2 emissions, with the hope that because European homes are using less energy and solar prices are dropping, then ipso facto, atmospheric CO2 levels would somehow stabilize (i.e. annual CO2 emissions falling to zero).  Without wanting to be pessimistic, but rather realistic, it may not be the case that emissions just fall and here are ten reasons why not. For those who visit this blog more regularly, sorry for the repetition, but hopefully this is a useful summary anyway.

1. There is still no carbon price

Although discussions about carbon pricing are widespread and there are large systems in place in the EU and California, pervasive robust pricing will take decades to implement if the current pace is maintained. Yet carbon pricing is pivotal to resolving the issue, as discussed here. The recent Carbon Pricing Statement from the World Bank also makes this point and calls on governments, amongst others, to work towards the goal of a global approach.

2. Legacy infrastructure almost gets us there

The legacy energy system that currently powers the world is built and will more than likely continue to run, with some parts for decades. This includes everything from domestic appliances to cars to huge chemical plants, coal mines and power stations. I have added up what I think is the minimum realistic impact of this legacy and it takes us to something over 800 billion tonnes carbon emitted to the atmosphere, from the current level of about 580 billion tonnes since 1750. Remember that 2°C is roughly equivalent to one trillion tonnes of carbon.

3. Efficiency drives growth and energy use, not the reverse

The proposition that energy efficiency reduces emissions seems to ignore the cumulative nature of carbon emissions and is apparently based on the notion that energy efficiency is somehow separate to growth and economic activity. What is wrong with this is that the counterfactual, i.e. that the economy would have used more energy but grown by the same amount, probably doesn’t exist. Rather, had efficiency measures not been taken then growth would have been lower and energy consumption would have been less as a result. Because efficiency drives economic growth, you have to account for Jevons Paradox (rebound). After all, economies have been getting more efficient since the start of the industrial revolution and emissions have only risen. Why would we now think that being even more efficient would somehow throw this engine into reverse?

4. We still need a global industrial system

In a modern city such as London, surrounded by towns and idyllic countryside with hardly a factory in sight, it’s easy to forget that an industrial behemoth lurks around the corner producing everything we buy, eat, use and trade. This behemoth runs on fossil fuels, both for the energy it needs and the feedstock it requires.

5. Solar optimism

There’s little doubt that solar PV is here to stay, will be very big and will probably be cheap, even with the necessary storage or backup priced in. But it’s going to take a while, perhaps most of this century for that to happen. During that time a great deal of energy will be needed for the global economy and it will come from fossil fuels. We will need to deal with the emissions from this.

6. Developing countries need coal to industrialize

I talked about this in a very recent post – developing countries are likely to employ coal to industrialize, which then locks the economy into this fuel. One way to avoid this is to see much wider use of instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism, but at prices that make some sense. This then comes back to point 1 above.

7. We focus on what we can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do

Methane emissions are currently attracting a great deal of attention. But cutting methane today and not making similar reductions in CO2 as well means we could still end up at the same level of peak warming later this century. It’s important to cut methane emissions, but not as a proxy for acting on CO2.

8. It’s about cumulative carbon, not emissions in 2050

Much of the misconception about how to solve the climate issue stems from a lack of knowledge about the issue itself. CO2 emissions are talked about on a local basis as we might talk about city air pollution or sulphur emissions from a power plant. These are flow problems in that the issue is solved by reducing the local flow of the pollutant. By contrast, the release of carbon to the atmosphere is a stock problem and the eventual stock in the atmosphere is linked more to the economics of resource extraction rather than it is to local actions in cities and homes. Thinking about the problem from the stock perspective changes the nature of the solution and the approach. One technology in particular becomes pivotal to the issue, carbon capture and storage (CCS).

9. Don’t mention CCS, we’re talking about climate change

Following on from the point above, it’s proving difficult for CCS to gain traction and acceptance. This is not helped by the UN process itself, where CCS doesn’t get much air time. One example was the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a pre-meeting for the upcoming UN Climate Summit. CCS wasn’t even on the agenda.

10. We just aren’t trying hard enough

A new report out from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change argues that the expected global agreement on climate change coming from the Paris COP21 in 2015 is unlikely to deliver anything close to a 2°C solution. At best, they see the “contributions” process that is now underway as usefully bending the global trajectory.

The analysis shows that an agreement likely achievable at COP-21 will succeed in a useful bending the curve of global emissions. The likely agreement will not, however, produce global emissions within the window of paths to 2050 that are consistent with frequently proposed climate goals, raising questions about follow-up steps in the development of a climate regime.

Perhaps of even greater concern is the potential that the UNFCCC process has for creating lock-in to a less than adequate policy regime. They note:

Nevertheless, if an agreement is reached in 2015, going into effect by 2020, the earliest review of performance along the way might not be before 2025. In this case, an effort to formulate the next agreement under the Climate Convention, or a tightening of COP-21 agreements, would not start until 2025 or after, with new targets set for a decade or more after that. If this expectation is correct, then global emissions as far out as 2045 or 2050 will be heavily influenced by achievements in the negotiations over the next 18 months.

 

 

While all fossil fuels are contributing to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, coal stands apart as really problematic, not just because of its CO2 emissions today (see chart, global emissions in millions of tonnes CO2 vs. time), but because of the vast reserves waiting to be used and the tendency for an emerging economy to lock its energy system into it.

Global energy emissions

Global emissions, million tonnes CO2 from 1971 to 2010

I recently came across data relating to the potential coal resource base in just one country, Botswana, which is estimated at some 200 billion tonnes. Current recoverable reserves are of course a fraction of this amount, but just for some perspective, 200 billion tonnes of coal once used would add well over 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and therefore shift the cumulative total from the current 580 billion tonnes carbon to nearly 700 billion tonnes carbon; and that is just from Botswana. Fortunately Botswana has quite a small population and a relatively high GDP per capita so it is unlikely to use vast amounts of this coal for itself, but its emerging neighbours, countries like Zimbabwe, may certainly benefit. This much coal would also take a very long time to extract – even on a global basis it represents over 25 years of use at current levels of production.

This raises the question of whether a country can develop without an accessible resource base of some description, but particularly an energy resource base. A few have done so, notably Japan and perhaps the Netherlands, but many economies have developed by themselves on the back of coal or developed when others arrived and extracted more difficult resources for them, notably oil, gas and minerals. The coal examples are numerous, but start with the likes of Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Australia and include more recent examples such as China, South Africa and India. Of course strong governance and institutional capacity are also required to ensure widespread societal benefit as the resource is extracted.

Coal is a relatively easy resource to tap into and make use of. It requires little technology to get going but offers a great deal, such as electricity, railways (in the early days), heating, industry and very importantly, smelting (e.g. steel making). In the case of Great Britain and the United States coal provided the impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of the latter, very easy to access oil soon followed and mobility flourished, which added enormously to the development of the continent.

But the legacy that this leaves, apart from a wealthy society, is a lock-in of the resource on which the society was built. So much infrastructure is constructed on the back of the resource that it becomes almost impossible to replace or do without, particularly if the resource is still providing value.

As developing economies emerge they too look at resources such as coal. Although natural gas is cleaner and may offer many environmental benefits over coal (including lower CO2 emissions), it requires a much higher level of infrastructure and technology to access and use, so it may not be a natural starting point. It often comes later, but in many instances it has been as well as the coal rather than instead of it. Even in the USA, the recent natural gas boom has not displaced its energy equivalent in coal extraction, rather some of the coal has shifted to the export market.

Enter the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The idea here was to jump the coal era and move directly to cleaner fuels or renewable energy by providing the value that the coal would have delivered as a subsidy for more advanced infrastructure. But it hasn’t quite worked that way. With limited buyers of CERs (Certified Emission Reduction units) and therefore limited provision of the necessary subsidy, the focus shifted to smaller scale projects such as rural electricity provision. These are laudable projects, but this doesn’t represent the necessary investment in large scale industrial infrastructure that the country actually needs to develop. Rooftop solar PV won’t build roads, bridges and hospitals or run steel mills and cement plants. So the economy turns to coal anyway.

This is one of the puzzles that will need to be solved for a Paris 2015 agreement to actually start to make a difference. If we can rescue a mechanism such as the CDM and have it feature in a future international agreement, it’s focus, or at least a major part of it, has to shift from small scale development projects to large scale industrial and power generation projects, but still with an emphasis on least developed economies where coal lock-in has yet to occur or is just starting.

There is a well-known saying that “Politics makes strange bedfellows”. In recent weeks, carbon pricing has seen its share of media exposure and strange bedfellows, although this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it is all about politics anyway. The good news is that this much maligned and misunderstood subject is finally getting some solid airtime, albeit from some interesting supporters.

The re-emergence of this subject has been building for some time now, but perhaps was highlighted by the June 21st op-ed by Hank Paulson in the New York Times. Paulson served as Secretary of the Treasury during the recent Bush administration, following many years at the helm of Goldman Sachs. Although his article was in part directed at the launch of the recent Risky Business report, Paulson used the opportunity to reach out to the Republican side of the political spectrum in the US and argue that a carbon price (a tax in this case) was “fundamentally conservative” and “will reduce the role of government” rather than the opposite which many opponents argue. At least in my view, he is right. Intervening in the energy mix, forcing certain technology solutions, requiring a given percentage from a particular energy source and so on are all big government steps towards addressing emissions. A carbon price is clean and simple and can get the job done.

On the opposite page of the New York Times was the reality check from Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. While Krugman made it clear that Paulson had taken a “brave stand” and that “every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax”, the sobering reality from Krugman is “we won’t actually do it”. Rather, he imagines a set of secondary measures, the “theory of the second best” as he calls it, including vehicle efficiency standards, clean energy loan guarantees and various other policy measures. My view is that while all of these are important parts of a coherent energy policy, they are approaching third best when it comes to CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, another strong advocate of carbon pricing has emerged, namely the World Bank. They have never been silent on the issue and indeed have pioneered policy approaches such as the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, but this time they have gone much further and are being considerably louder and bolder. The World Bank have produced a statement, “Putting a Price on Carbon” and have called on governments, companies and other stakeholders (e.g. industry associations) to sign up to it. The statement calls for:

. . . the long-term objective of a carbon price applied throughout the global economy by:

  • strengthening carbon pricing policies to redirect investment commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge;
  • bringing forward and strengthening the implementation of existing carbon pricing policies to better manage investment risks and opportunities;
  • enhancing cooperation to share information, expertise and lessons learned on developing and implementing carbon pricing through various “readiness” platforms.

This is all good stuff, but of course now it needs real support. A further look at the World Bank website illustrates the growing patchwork of activity around carbon pricing. It’s quite heartening.

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To finish where I started, the strange bedfellows, perhaps nothing could be closer to this than seeing Australian mining magnate and now Member of Parliament, Clive Palmer, on the same stage as climate crusader Al Gore. Only weeks before Mr Gore had made the very clear statement that “We must put a price on carbon in markets and a price on denial in politics”, but nevertheless stood with Palmer as he announced that he would support the Government’s decision to repeal the Carbon Pricing Mechanism (there isn’t a colour for repeal on the World Bank map). I don’t think Mr Gore was particularly happy about that bit, but hopefully was there for the follow-on, where Palmer announced that his party would require a latent ETS to be established in Australia for use once Australia’s main trading partners were also pricing carbon. Given PUP’s (Palmer United Party) hold on the balance of power in the Australian Senate, this might at least mean that Australia will stay in the ETS club and emerge again as a player in the years to come. However, considering the fact that New Zealand, the EU, parts of China, Pacific North America (i.e. California, British Colombia), Japan and (soon) South Africa all have some sort of carbon price, latency may indeed be short lived.

In the lead up to the UN Climate Summit in September this year, the Abu Dhabi Ascent was held on May 4-5th as the only preparatory event. Former Vice President Al Gore was one of the keynote speakers and perhaps got the most tweeted line, which came in response to a question from the moderator regarding the single policy he would ask for if he had only one choice. He said, “. . . . put a price on carbon in markets and put a price on denial in politics”. In fact this is two things, but I wouldn’t expect anything less of Al Gore.

This comment set the scene for Rachel Kyte of the World Bank to launch their call for countries and companies to put a price on carbon. This isn’t the first time such a call has been made, but it is perhaps the first time such a call has been made directly to governments at a forum designed for governments by a multilateral agency linked with governments.

The call is a relatively simple one at this stage and fills a glaring gap in the UNFCCC agenda as it has been developing over recent years. Arguably the UNFCCC started the multilateral process back in the 1990s with a carbon pricing approach, in that the Kyoto Protocol is in part built around the idea of allowances, offsets and trading which in turn implies a price on carbon. Over time as the Kyoto Protocol has waned, talk of carbon pricing at the international level has gone in a similar direction. By the end of the Warsaw COP last year, all talk of markets and carbon pricing had been largely put to one side in favour of the efforts just to get everybody around the table and talking about contributions.

“Contributions” may be the political language of the day, but they will do little to stem emissions if carbon pricing isn’t core to the national effort underpinning said contributions. Some countries seem to have figured this out, but the actual price on carbon that currently prevails in those economies that have tried to create it is a far cry from anything that might actually make a difference. While the efforts to date may be a good start from the perspective of building the necessary national institutional capacity for carbon pricing, there is little evidence that governments, business and consumers are actually prepared to accept a carbon price that will deliver a tangible change in energy investment.

I would suggest that this  is where The World Bank most needs to focus its attention. If not, I believe that we may end up with a complex system of carbon markets, linkages, trade and compliance all operating at under $10, which will look impressive on paper but in reality won’t make a difference to global emissions. The acid test for a carbon pricing system is its ability to deliver carbon capture and storage (probably with some additional fiscal support for the first generation of projects). At least for the next few decades, carbon pricing below this point may put a dent in the profitability of fossil fuels, but it won’t make them go away. This will inevitably lead to one thing – regulation. That might sound like the answer for some, but the reality will be a much higher cost for economies to bear for the same mitigation effort.

World bank Carbon pricing Cliff

The last of the three IPCC 5th Assessment Reports has now been published, but with a final Synthesis Report to come towards the end of the year. The “Mitigation of Climate Change” details the various emission pathways that are open to us, the technologies required to move along them and most importantly, some feeling for the relative costs of doing so.

As had been the case with the Science and Impacts reports, a flurry of media reporting followed the release, but with little sustained discussion. Hyperbole and histrionics also filled the airwaves. For example, the Guardian newspaper reported:

The cheapest and least risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all dirty fossil fuels in coming decades, the report found. Gas – including that from the global fracking boom – could be important during the transition, but only if it replaced coal burning.

This is representative of the general tone of the reporting, with numerous outlets taking a similar line. The BBC stated under the heading “World must end ‘dirty’ fuel use – UN”:

A long-awaited UN report on how to curb climate change says the world must rapidly move away from carbon-intensive fuels. There must be a “massive shift” to renewable energy, says the study released in Berlin.

While it is a given that emissions must fall and for resolution of the climate issue at some level, anthropogenic emissions should be returned to the near net zero state that has prevailed for all of human history barring the last 300 or so years, nowhere in the Summary Report do words such as “abandon” and “dirty” actually appear. Rather, a carefully constructed economic and risk based argument is presented and it isn’t even until page 18 of 33 that the tradeoff between various technologies is actually explored. Up until that point there is quite a deep discussion on pathways, emission levels, scenarios and temperature ranges.

Then comes the economic crux of the report on page 18 in Table SPM.2. For scenarios ranging from 450ppm CO2eq up to 650 ppm CO2eq, consumption losses and mitigation costs are given through to 2100, with variations in the availability of technologies and the timing (i.e. delay) of mitigation actions. The centre section of this table is given below;

 IPCC WGIII Table SPM2

Particularly for the lower concentration scenario (430-480 ppm) the table highlights the importance of carbon capture and storage. For the “No CCS” mitigation pathway, i.e. a pathway in which CCS isn’t available as a mitigation option, the costs are significantly higher than the base case which has a full range of technologies available. This is still true for higher end concentrations, but not to the same extent. This underpins the argument that the energy system will take decades to see significant change and that therefore, in the interim at least, CCS becomes a key technology for delivering something that approaches the 2°C goal. For the higher concentration outcomes, immediate mitigation action is not so pressing and therefore the energy system has more time to evolve to much lower emissions without CCS – but of course with the consequence of elevated global temperatures. A similar story is seen in the Shell New Lens Scenarios.

Subtleties such as this were lost in the short media frenzy following the publication of the report and only appear later as people actually sit down and read the document. By then it is difficult for these stories to surface and the initial sound bites make their way into the long list of urban myths we must then deal with on the issue of climate change.