Monday, 14 December 2015

Climate change: and "moving beyond a dysfunctional carbon-intensive energy system"

This is the monthly 'energy crunch' energy news from the New Economics Foundation:
New Economics Foundation
With just three weeks left in 2015, what trends should we be noting from the last 12 months?

Key global trends:

  • If current NOAA projections materialise, 2015 will be remembered as the year when the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere reached the symbolic level of 400 parts per million (ppm).
This means we are already in dangerous territory: many scientists consider anything above 350ppm to be an unsafe zone, and most agree that to have a 50% chance of limiting average global temperature increases to 2 degrees C relative to pre-industrial levels, CO2 concentrations should not exceed 450ppm.     
Recent global monthly mean CO2
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Based on current projections, 2015 will also be the warmest year on record, reaching 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels.
The impacts of this increase are already being felt in many parts of the world. Although not all natural disasters are causally linked to climate change, many are, and the global occurrences of droughts, floods, extreme temperatures and storms are clearly on the rise. The mounting damages bill from these events serves as a stark reminder that simply adapting to climate change will cost us far more in the long term than tackling the problem head on.

Extreme weather events
Source: International Disaster Database
  • On the positive side, the world economy seems to be achieving a relative decoupling between fossil fuel and industry related carbon emissions and GDP growth: despite a global GDP growth rate of 3.1% for 2015, global emissions from fossil fuels use and industry seem to have temporarily peaked.
Why has this happened? Firstly, a notable reduction of coal-related emissions in China, secondly, a slow but steady decline of final energy consumption in developed countries and thirdly, a marked surge in renewable energy: with an average annual growth rate of 15.9% between 2010 and 2015, renewables are by far the fastest growing global energy source.
On a less positive note, this is very likely to be a one-off: these trends will struggle to last beyond 2015 if developed countries do not take more decisive action for reducing emissions. Under existing international agreements (and in the absence of an additional agreement at the COP21) temperatures would still rise beyond safe limits (3.3 to 3.8 degrees C).

Global real GDP and CO2 growth rates Emissions intensity
  • The scale and speed of the change in emissions and the global energy structure will highly depend on the outcome of the COP21 in Paris. At the time of writing, details of any agreement are yet to be published.
Ahead of the conference, various countries proposed Individual Nationally Determined Contributions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These pledges do not add up to a limit of 2 degrees C warming. A Climate Action Tracker report has estimated that sticking to these pledges means that global temperatures would increase by at least 2.7 degrees C compared to pre-industrial times.
This is better than business-as-usual projections, but clearly not enough. In fact, many scientists consider even 2 degrees warming unjustifiable based on the risks this would entail, particularly for poorer regions.

Key UK trends

How has the UK been reacting to this global context?

What next?

The future of the global energy system in large part depends on reaching an ambitious binding agreement at the COP21.
Now the cost competitiveness of renewable energy generation is dramatically improving, an energy transition in high income countries can no longer be considered unattainable. Already, some middle income countries facing significant financial, and other, constraints, are managing just that.
This is a historic opportunity to campaign for moving beyond a dysfunctional carbon-intensive energy system, and building the foundations for forms of energy generation and management that are environmentally sustainable, socially just and politically inclusive.   

In other news…

The low price of fossil fuels poses a threat to an energy transition
Since the dramatic fall of oil prices (and, by extension, of other fossil fuels), renewables have been surprisingly resilient. However, a blog post co-authored by the IMF’s chief economist Maurice Obstfeld warns that growth of renewable energy could be halted if prices of conventional energy remains at depressed levels for longer.
Uruguay powers ahead
Uruguay has achieved a remarkable energy transition, with more than 90% of its electricity now coming from renewable sources. Interestingly, this example shows how domestically produced renewable energy can generate a macroeconomic dividend for middle income countries: Uruguay has sensibly reduced its energy trade deficit (now only dependent on oil imports), and is even exporting electricity to neighbouring Argentina.
Politicians haven’t noticed
Apparently DECC’s energy minister thinks the UK’s domestic energy demand is rising, therefore justifying increased investment in fracking and nuclear energy. This is completely wrong. In the UK, direct energy demand is on the decline, both on aggregate and on a per capita basis. Granted, the financial crisis certainly contributed to this reduction, and so did offshoring of production. However, UK (direct) per capita energy consumption was already flattening before 2008 – as is the case for many high income countries. In other terms, what the UK needs is not more energy but cleaner energy. 
UK primary energy consumption in MTOE TOE consumption per capita

Energy round-up: looking back at 2015 | New Economics Foundation

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