Why would you go for dirty fuel if cleaner energy is cheaper?

Like all great truths, it is both stunningly obvious and yet profound

Andreas Whittam Smith@indyvoices
Wednesday 02 December 2015 19:06
Over the weekend, the major powers pledged $20bn for green energy research
Over the weekend, the major powers pledged $20bn for green energy research

The global warming deniers have gone into hibernation. Hardly a word has been heard from them since the first reports of preparations for the United Nations’ climate change conference in Paris were published. They seem to have been overwhelmed by the scale of the global response despite the difficulties that lie ahead.

To start with, the US and China made a deal to reduce their greenhouse gas output. China agreed to cap emissions for the first time and the US committed to deep reductions by 2025. The European Union followed up with a policy to cut greenhouse gases by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

Then 153 countries published their objectives for reducing emissions by the same date. Together they are responsible for 90 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. When you think that there cannot be a leader in the world who welcomes making the necessary changes, with all their political difficulties, this is an astonishing display of seriousness.

More recently, just to emphasise what is at stake, the World Meteorological Organisation stated: “2015 is likely to be the hottest year on record, with ocean surface temperatures at the highest level since measurements began.” So nearly 200 heads of government ignored security risks to attend the opening of the conference in Paris on Monday.

What seems to have changed is the assessment of the national interest when global temperatures are relentlessly creeping higher. One question now being asked, for example, is whether the consequences of global warming are already stirring social unrest. Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has recently noted that the drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011 – the worst on record there – destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq. Seager added: “We’re not saying the drought caused the war... We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Whatever urgency this sort of assessment generates, however, there are major obstacles to reaching an accord in Paris. The chief of these is that the pre-conference pledges are not enough. The commonly accepted target is to limit the increase in the average global surface temperature to 2C above the pre-industrial average. The Climate Action Tracker, for instance, estimates a “best-guess” global warming by 2100 of 2.7C above pre-industrial levels, based on its assessment of pledges and policies made by countries attending the Paris conference.

The response to this shortfall is likely to be a ratcheting-up mechanism. This would mean that countries would commit themselves to improve their pledges on a regular basis, perhaps every five years. The argument in Paris will be whether this should be voluntary or compulsory.

Then, in an interview with this newspaper, the climate economist Lord Stern put his finger on another problem. He said: “Equality is a big issue. The rich got rich on high-carbon growth and it’s the poor people of the world – whether they be poor people in rich countries or poor people in poor countries – who suffer earliest and most.”

Or, as the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, wrote in the Financial Times on Monday: “Advanced countries powered their way to prosperity on fossil fuel.” But justice demands that “developing countries are allowed to grow”. So a good part of the negotiations in Paris will focus on how much money the rich nations pay to the poorer ones to help them adapt to the effects of global warming – such as increased hurricanes and droughts – and to help finance the transition from fossil fuels to green energy. The charity Oxfam argues that participating nations should address the lack of finance by either agreeing that “at least half of all public finance should go for adaptation, or setting a fixed target of at least $35bn (£23bn) by 2020 and at least $50bn by 2025”.

But this isn’t the only example of the requirement for the expenditure of billions. Over the weekend, the major powers pledged $20bn for green energy research. In its way, this is a satisfying answer to the plea first enunciated by a group of well-known British scientists, industrialists, economists and public servants under the banner of the “Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change”.

They published a report containing one clear, simple insight. If clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil, then coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground. Like all great truths, it is at once stunningly obvious and yet profound.

So the big question is how to make it cheaper. The Global Apollo Programme’s authors argued that most of the main technological advances of the past 100 years had derived from publicly funded research and development – the computer, semiconductors, the internet, genetic sequencing, broadband, satellite communications, and nuclear power. Yet in the case of climate change the main focus has been not so much on good, basic research and development but on incentives for the private sector such as carbon prices, feed-in tariffs, regulatory standards and the like. In other words, governments have tried to avoid spending any actual money. Well, they can resist no longer.

Explaining this new initiative, the White House said the contributing countries spanned the biggest global economies and major emitters, oil and gas producers and leaders in clean energy research. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put his hand in his pocket. That is quite something.

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