Contemplating Copenhagen and the USA

I will be in Bonn for part of this week where the first round of 2009 talks leading up to Copenhagen are taking place. So far, not much seems to be happening there, despite a week of talks. Whilst it is probably true that Copenhagen might be a bit like the G20 – i.e. general anticipation of not much then dramatic diplomacy at the 11th hour – some positions that are being discussed in the lead up are far from helpful.

Most notable is the expectation of emissions cuts that developing countries want to see developed countries make. I pulled the following sets of quotes from various media outlets as they seem to represent this line of discussion in Bonn against the stated aim of the US to bring 2020 emissions back to 1990 levels:

“We believe that by 2020 the [developed nations] should reduce their emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels,” says Chinese delegate Xu Huaqing.

“It is not the point in time in 2020 that matters – it is a long-term trajectory against which the science measures cumulative emissions,” says Jonathan Pershing, head of the US delegation. “The president has also announced his intent to pursue an 80% reduction by 2050.”

Germany’s environment minister Sigmar Gabriel told a Berlin radio station that, “even under Barack Obama, the US has insufficient climate protection goals, at least as far as the international community is concerned”.

Perhaps it is time for a reality check on what the situation in the US actually is. I started discussing this back in February, but I think it is worth digging a little deeper on what the USA would actually have to do to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

First of all some assumptions and data:

1. Population increases from 300 to 341 million (US Census Bureau projection)

2. Assume a lowish GDP improvement, say 1.5% p.a. from 2006 (most recent IEA data is for 2006 so that is the starting point) to 2020, given the current deep recession.

3. 1990 CO2 energy related emissions were 4.8 billion tonnes. Let’s assume this is the target for 2020 which means that non-energy CO2 and other GHG emissions must also drop by the same amount. In 2006 US energy CO2 emissions were 5.8 billion tonnes, or a 21% increase from 1990.

To achieve the target the US has slightly over 10 years to do the following:

  • Increase the annual improvement in energy efficiency (energy/GDP) to about 2.5% p.a. This is delivered by a 6 mpg jump in on-the-road vehicle efficiency (i.e. all vehicles, not just the new ones), a 10% drop in total residential energy demand despite a >10% rise in population and a 6% drop in industrial energy use. I have assumed that the commercial sector energy demand rises. Power generation efficiency must also improve.
  • Restart the nuclear industry and achieve a net increase in capacity of about 15 GW – i.e. no drop off in capacity as older stations are retired.
  • Install ~40,000 5 MW wind turbines, that’s about 10 every day. Each of these turbines is over 100 metres high.
  • Fit (or build new) 60 big coal fired power stations with carbon dioxide capture and storage. Not one large scale commercial plant exists today. It means the first round of demonstration facilities (say 10-20 units) must be agreed on in 2010 so that construction can start.
  • Install 30 GW of large scale solar, both photovoltaic and solar-thermal.
  • Shift the vehicle fuel pool to 10% advanced biofuels with a near-zero carbon footprint.

This is quite a list, but possibly not beyond the capacity of the USA to implement – although time is not on its side. But imagine a 40% reduction??

An alternative pathway forward is to spread much of the effort globally, through a project approach which generates carbon credits for use as offsets in the USA.  But this may be even more difficult to achieve, given the reluctance of a US Congress focussed on recovery to “export jobs”.

So the discussions will not be easy in Bonn, or beyond. Hopefully I can gain some further insight during my visit.