Still incomplete – What happened in Paris will not stay in Paris

Will the world succeed in significant mitigation of GHGs?

The Agreement – what has actually happened in Paris?Paris agreement

Last week, an historic agreement was reached in Paris. The importance of this conference has also been addressed in previous blog post.

What the agreement did indeed was to strengthen –some may say establish- a climate change regime, as it establishes a long-term goal of net-zero emissions, a mechanism to review progress and increase ambition at regular intervals (every 5 years, which is a common way to do review processes of international treaties of all kinds), and a framework for climate finance. International regimes are commonly defined as “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors expectations converge in a given issue-area.”[1]

Key provisions are therefore:

  • Transparency in and Review of Mitigations: States are to peak their emissions as soon as possible, plus achieving “net-zero” emissions by the half of the century. Furthermore, through Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs – the World Resource Insitute provides us with this wonderful map to track all the contributions: http://cait.wri.org/indc/#/map ), the target of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees, or even to 1.5 degrees Celsius, should be reached.
    • In the eyes of the well-infromed International Insitute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA), the 1.5 target is possible. Joeri Rogelj, researcher at IIASA, says “Global emissions must peak as soon as 2020 if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C by 2100.”
    • However, some scientists are very sceptical if the 1.5 target is still feasible: an example: “We need stronger, short-term action,” said Steffen Kallbekken, research director at Cicero: “By the time the [INDCs] enter into force in 2020, we will have probably exhausted the entire carbon budget for the 1.5-degree target.”
  • Climate finance:Developed countries agreed in Copenhagen to provide $100 billion annually in financial assistance by 2020 for developing countries to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions while growing their clean energy economies. The Paris Agreement acknowledges this $100 billion as a minimum for climate finance to be reviewed and increased “before 2025.” The agreement balances public funding between mitigation and adaptation, increasing pre-2020 support for adaptation for the most vulnerable countries already suffering the impacts of climate change.

The Implementation – what will happen outside Paris?

Reasonably, it is far beyond a blog post to actually go through all the implications the Paris agreement will have (including the fact that cities have to be reshaped and car to be abandoned from them), so let’s focus on energy technologies –and innovations- that are said to make this agreement feasible.

Below is a graph on large carbon dioxide emitters by country and source (admitting that the graph is incomplete as there are other sources as well but they are much more minor in comparison to the fossil fuels). Looking at the bars, one will ultimately be shocked by China’s coal share. But first thing first, this is not about blaming and shaming, in fact at the COP21 most admitted that as China is being the workshop of the World, this bar is not solely owned by China.

Carbon per Country and Source
CO2 per Country and Source

To reduce the share of coal is not only a target by China and the World, it is also a challenge. Coal now supplies 41% of the world’s electricity and 29% of the world’s energy—a bigger share than at any time in at least four decades. The reason why reducing coal is a challenge is the following: the cost of carbon are not adequately reflected (a international carbon cost on product level could help in the future – if products that are procduced with electricity of coal and the transported by using fossile fuels, their price should incooperate the costs of carbon emission), and hence, coal is –also due to its abundance- a very cheap provider of electricity. In addition, and equaly important, coal provides for the baseload in the electricity supply.

Wind and Solar do increase, but can they cope with the challenge alone? In an ideal world: Yes. Undeniably in some occasions, and in some limited areas, Hydropower can deliver in balancing the other renewables. But, more generally, whereas electricity from renewable is hard to store and –to use the common phrase – what if the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine…?

Advances in energy sector is required

Accordingly, apart from enormous investments in all kinds of renewables, much more investement and committemnt is required. Achivieng the goals of Paris’ agreement, advances in energy storage, advanced nuclear reactors, and carbon capture and storage are needed although they are hardly proven. To paraphrase the MIT’s technological review:  The first two are feasible given massive investment in both basic science and commercialization. The last is probably not.

Energy Storage: According to the International Energy Agency, a additional 310 GWh of grid-connected energy storage will need to be deployed in the United States, Europe, China, and India, in order for the electricity sector to fully decarbonize.[2] While this is a very long shot, and while at current production levels of lithium-ion batteries, which are the most efficient, cost are very, but technically it is feasible.

Advanced nuclear: There are many different projects and developments currently underway and they are all being described in Advanced Nuclear 101. And in many ways, the prospects for commercializing advanced nuclear technology, such as compact fast reactors and molten-salt reactors, have never been more optimistic. In the US and in China specifically – though less obvious in Europe- the development of new nuclear reactors are part of the climate strategy.  The U.S. has a program to help develop small-scale reactors, and in the U.K., the Treasury last month said it would plow 250 million pounds (344 million) into researching the technology. China plans to build as many as eight nuclear power plants each year from 2016 to 2020 and invest 500 billion yuan ($77 billion) on next-generation nuclear reactors during the five years, according to a statement from state-owned Power Construction Corp. of China Ltd. earlier this month, citing a draft of China’s 13th five-year plan.

In Paris Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, said that “”If we have aviable pathway at building nuclear power in smaller bites, the whole financing structure can change and make it much more affordable,” and, “If we can demonstrate, let’s say, the first modular reactor in the early part of the next decade, then what we hope is, it’s part of the planning process in the middle of the next decade for our utilities.”

In addition, the IEA has concluded that Small modular reactors (SMRs) could extend the market for nuclear energy by providing power to smaller grid systems or isolated markets where larger nuclear plants are not suitable. The modular nature of these designs may also help to address financing barriers.[3]

Carbon capture and storage (CCS):  “[The current text] has no reference to levels of carbon peaks, no reference to fossil fuels in text, and the language of neutrality [assumes] we can suck massive amounts of CO2 in the future,” said Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for climate change research. “We should do research on geoengineering, but should only develop policy assuming that it does not work.” Geoengineering – which is still unproven – should not be assumed, and we don’t need it. In addition, for fossil fuel to play a role beyond 2050, the CCS must contribute significantly, as emphsized in an recent article.

To make it short, the scale needed for carbon capture and storage is beyond imagination when taken as  the single source for mitigating carbon to reach the Paris goal. But even relying on it in smaller scale is risking the 1.5 degree target.

Moreover, the advances in the areas of energy storage and advanced nuclear technology are much more liky then CCS advances of the kind needed. According to the International Energy Agency, we must remove and store more than two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from smokestacks by 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic warming, and seven billion metric tons by 2050. Barring a major technological advance that is not currently foreseeable, those targets are unreachable.[4]

Too early to call, but don’t be too optimistic

Certainly, we cannot predict the likelihood of advances in technologies with great accuracy, but for the 1.5 degree to be reached, will have to act very promptly, will have to negative net-emissions, and need to be lucky in some innovations. Carbon capture and storage, though, may be systematically overrated in the agreement reached in Paris. Therefore, we will have to plan without it, in the short- mid- and long term.

 

[1] Krasner, Stephan D. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variable.” International Regimes. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1983. 1-22: 1.

[2] “Technology Roadmap: Energy Storage.” IEA Technology Roadmaps (2014): n. pag. Iea.org. International Energy Agency, 19 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.,

[3] “Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy.” IEA Technology Roadmaps (2015): n. pag. Iea.org. International Energy Agency, 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

[4] “Technology Roadmap: Carbon Capture and Storage.” IEA Technology Roadmaps (2013): n. pag. Iea.org. International Energy Agency, 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

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