COP 21: Saving the rainforests and ice sheets

This post was contributed by Dr Becky Briant, senior lecturer in Physical Geography at Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS)

Paris_skyline_from_the_observation_deck_of_the_Montparnasse_tower,_July_2015 - By Joe deSousa (Paris skyline) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsEach December for the past six years I have sat in a lecture room on a Tuesday evening in December and had the same conversation with a new group of students on my Climate Change module – what will be the outcome from the latest round of climate negotiations?

In 2009, I had only just launched the Birkbeck MSc in Climate Change Management. The Copenhagen COP was all over the news and hopes were high. One of my students worked in government and was actually there – sending back a daily briefing and entertaining us all with stories of Ed Miliband being woken up to respond to the hasty US-China deal that was brought together in the last few hours. But in the end it felt like failure. And the next few years were very quiet. It was hard to find useful resources online for the students to read and it seemed like no one expected the annual negotiations to yield much that was new.

Yet slowly things have been changing. Now, at COP 21 in Paris, it feels again like a useful deal might be struck. We have greenhouse gas emissions pledges on the table from most of the countries in the world and it seems like we have a chance of a useful reporting and review framework to surround them. It’s not yet enough, but it’s close enough and important enough that I took my family on the annual climate march for the first time. They were too small in 2009 for Copenhagen and perhaps I was too complacent about the hopes for a deal.

What we need to do

Dr Becky Briant on a climate march

Dr Becky Briant on a climate march

We need a deal to work this time though. We need to move on from the details of frameworks to actually acting to reduce emissions, as so many of our Birkbeck alumni already are across government, business and the third sector. We need to start holding countries accountable to their pledges, and urging joined up thinking in Governments as yesterday’s analysis of how many future coal fired power stations are planned in various economies shows.

The pledges we have now are a good start, but they are only that. Research by the Climate Interactive team at MIT shows that in themselves they will only limit global average surface warming to 3.5 degrees Celsius above the 1850 pre-industrial baseline. This is well above the 2 degrees that the world agreed at Copenhagen would constitute ‘dangerous’ climate change.

It starts to run the risk of crossing thresholds in the climate system such as complete Amazon forest dieback due to extreme drying which would severely affect the amount of carbon dioxide the land system can store for us. Or melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, causing sea levels to rise by some 7m. Once these tipping points are crossed, the system would be changed forever – at least longer than any human lifetime – and the new system would act to reinforce the changes seen. For example, losing the ice sheets would lower the reflectiveness of the earth’s surface, causing it to absorb more energy and so heat the world further.

The current pledges on the table only run until 2030 so there is plenty of scope for more ambitious pledges to reduce projected warming further, detailed very helpfully by the Climate Interactive team here:

The action required to have a strong chance of actually staying below 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature is challenging and I don’t think we can scale up the technologies required in time. But I am hoping that in another six years’ time my students and I will be having a very different conversation. And that my children will get to raise their children in a world that still has an Amazon rainforest and ice sheets at the poles because we acted now to stabilise temperature rise to at least near the 2 degree limit.

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The UN in Paris: Follow the Carbon-Free Money

This post was contributed by Jo Abbess, associate research fellow at Birkbeck, and graduate of the college’s MSc Climate Change. Her book, Renewable Gas: The Transition to Low Carbon Energy Fuels, was published this autumn by Palgrave Macmillan

By Joe deSousa (Paris skyline) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The great caravan that is the United Nations has assembled some exceedingly important officials from almost every nation on Earth in Paris, France, for the annual jamboree of climate change negotiations. Some very exciting things have already been announced:

  • 183 of 195 countries have pledged voluntary and unenforceable action on climate change
  • Bill Gates has promised us that new Technology, brought about by the might of Innovation, in his new “Breakthrough Energy Coalition”, will be investable and bankable clean energy;
  • Obama’s “Mission Innovation” will see 20 countries pledge to double their Research and Development funding;
  • and all but nine of the climate change activists that were trying to stage a peaceful public demonstration in Paris have been released from highly secure custody.

Like the police and army in Paris, we are on high alert. Maybe there will be genuine progress. Maybe there will be a treaty that licks global warming and locks the risk of dangerous climate change out. Maybe I’m being too cynical, but I very much doubt that the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will really get to grips with the business of curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

A delaying tactic?

For one thing, even though Technology and Innovation are the twin gods of all business schools, we don’t need to wait for any more Research and Development (R&D) – we already have all the types of clean energy we need. It’s right that clean energy is essential for tackling global warming, but some could argue quite reasonably that waiting for the results of another decade of R&D is just a delaying tactic. Who, we could ponder, would be interested in delaying the deployment of renewable energy? Have Obama and Gates and the United Nations itself been hoodwinked by the baseless promise of, say, new designs for nuclear power in two decades’ time, instead of onshore wind and solar farms that we can build today?

The UNFCCC has a history of being diverted from the main solutions to global warming: namely, the extensive application of energy efficiency principles in all business, commerce and manufacture; the application of demand-side reduction measures for all energy consumers; and the massive, geographically dispersed installation of renewable electricity generation stations. To roll out new clean energy technologies will take some fossil fuel energy to start with – so this needs to be compensated for by the application of stringent energy consumption controls.

We need a transition plan

Does anybody talk about this seriously? To wait any longer to transition from fossil fuel consumption to renewable energy consumption puts the entire habitable surface of the Earth at risk from dangerous climate change – so why should we accept delays for new research programmes to be completed? It’s true that any action on deforestation will address up to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, but that still leaves 80% of all humanity’s energy coming from fossil fuels that we must stop using or risk our place on Earth. We don’t need more R&D, or cross our fingers for more Innovation.

What we need is a transition plan – a strategy to transition from the use of fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy. Don’t sell me shiny, new energy technologies that don’t yet exist. Replace my power supply with green wind or solar power. But the wind doesn’t always blow, people complain, and the sun sets in the evening, people explain. So is renewable energy unreliable? No, renewable power is already offsetting massive chunks of expenditure on fossil fuels. But how do we bridge the gap and keep the lights on on calm, dark nights? Well, a transition plan would be simple. Keep replacing fossil fuel-fired power generation with renewable electricity generation, and keep replacing fossil fuel-fired power generation backup with low carbon gas backup.

Start with Natural Gas – while we still have it – and transition to Renewable Gas. This would take the cooperation of the large players in the oil, gas, coal, nuclear and engineering industries. What have they had to say about climate change so far? Shell, for example, has kept selling the idea of Carbon Capture and Storage to glue onto the back of fossil fuel-fired power plants. The efficiency of such a strategy is so low, not even the UK Government is ready to throw money at it any more. Yet Shell has gasification plant, which in theory could use biomass as input feedstock to manufacture low carbon gas. So why don’t they do it? And why don’t they publish their strategy to do this?

If Shell, BP and ExxonMobil won’t go public on a transition to Renewable Gas, then maybe it should fall to companies like Siemens Energy, Alstom and General Electric to make low carbon gas to compete with Natural Gas – which has a projected shelf life of between 20 to 35 years – after which depletion of the gas resources, coupled with concerns over carbon dioxide emissions will bar its continued use.

We don’t have time to wait

COP 21 logoI think that if Britain is to improve investment in clean energy, the Government needs to:

  • consent all onshore and offshore wind farms and solar farms to permit accelerating investment;
  • develop a Renewable Gas Obligation (with no subsidy attached) to mandate that all gas suppliers and gas-fired power plants use a certain proportion of low carbon gas;
  • allow for re-nationalisation of gas-fired power plants and gas storage facilities;
  • and bring back a state-funded comprehensive building insulation scheme – including making sure all new buildings are zero carbon.

We don’t have time to wait for big, bold Bill to bumble his way around energy futures. Outside the UN boxing ring, investment in renewable energy technologies has seen some impressive advances, and this flow of actual capital, more than the UN climate talks, gives me cause for hope. If COP21 does not produce a genuine, immediate stimulus to clean energy investment, then the process for me will have been a meaningless waste of time, personal energy and aeroplane emissions.

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