Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Climate change: how the road to Paris is confused by diversions and misleading signposts

If the world was run in a rational way, and if it wanted to avoid expensive and life-threatening damage to eco-systems, climate and sea levels, not to mention reduce the threat of conflict that would result, then it would reasonably follow the advice of climate change scientists. These scientists say that that to be on the safe side it is necessary to keep the average global temperature rise since the start of the industrial revolution within 2°C at the most. There is pretty much no doubt about this.

So as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process to achieve this result, the world's national governments were asked to submit plans outlining how they would do their bit to achieve this result.

These plans are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). 146 countries had submitted them as of 1 October 2015 (including the EU, which represents 28 countries), covering 86% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Since October 1 more INDCs have been submitted and more keep coming in.

The UNFCCC has analysed whether the first 146 INDCs will collectively meet the 2°C challenge, and, by inference, whether they are acting in a rational way. It concludes that if fully implemented they would dramatically slow the level of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere – but not quite enough.

The analysis says the actions will bring global average emissions per capita down by as much as 8% in 2025 and 9% in by 2030, which will have the effect of limiting the forecast temperature rise to around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100.

One key point is "if fully implemented". A second is: whether these reports themselves are worth the paper they're written on.

The secretariat report does not directly assess implications for temperature change by the end of the century under the INDCs because information on emissions beyond 2030 is required. However, other independent analyses have, based on a range of assumptions, methodologies and data sources, attempted to estimate the impact of the INDCs on temperature. The analysis leads to a range of average estimates above 3°C.

We should probably pay more attention to these independent analyses, as they are less cautious about causing offence to sensitive nations in the politically hot climate of the pre-Paris negotiations.

So what do they say about the world's chances? Well, you won't be surprised to learn that not all governments are behaving in a rational way. In fact there is a psychological label that could be applied to describe the approach of some governments, and it is: schizophrenic.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT) is one of the main watchdogs of the UNFCC process. It is produced by four research organisations tracking climate action, led by Dr. Bill Hare, a physicist and environmental scientist at Climate Analytics. The other three organisations are Ecofys, New Climate Institute, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

CAT has assessed the quality of the INDCs, to see whether they are actually worth the paper they are written on. Amongst the countries that come up for the heaviest criticisms are several in South America, Turkey, South Africa and Indonesia.

CAT heavily criticises South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina and Chile's submissions as “inadequate”, and Brazil and Peru’s as merely “medium”.

"Instead of taking action commensurate with the size of the threat, these governments are largely sticking with their current policies, which are heading in the wrong direction,” said CAT's Dr. Marcia Rocha, Head of the Climate Policy team at Climate Analytics.

But we can't just pin the blame on them. Developed countries' own aid policies towards these countries are actually encouraging them to continue down a high emissions pathway.

Research by the UK's Overseas Development Institute for relief agency Cafod, drawing on data from the UK Department for International Development and from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, shows that in recent years these organisations supported carbon-intensive power plant construction projects in these countries that are locking in coal, oil and gas generated greenhouse gas emissions.

They included £200m to a major coal plant in South Africa and over half a billion pounds towards an oil and gas operation run by Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned energy company – which, as a profitable company hardly needs that level of support. The only possible reason for supporting it was so that British companies could secure contracts for the some of the construction work.

The research shows that twice as much development aid (£2 billion) went to projects involving fossil fuels (43%) as renewable energy (19% and £1 billion). But it's not just the UK doing this – all the G20 countries are.

“Continuing to back the development of fossil fuels doesn’t make sense in light of the UK’s goals on climate change and poverty. Export finance seems like the elephant in the room,” said Neil Thorns of Cafod. “We need consistency across government, so all departments work towards the same goals.” To its credit, the UK government did announce in 2013 that it would end support for new coal-fired power plants overseas.

Climate change impacts are expected to hit countries like Brazil hard. The Amazon has already been hit by severe droughts, and 2°C of warming is likely to increase these, and generally prolong the dry season.

The INDC of South Africa itself is also described as "inadequate". It plots a path with a 20-73% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, excluding emissions from land use changes. This is because the country relies heavily on mining and heavy industry for its economy. It burns domestic coal and its industrial and building sectors are highly carbon intensive. 94% of its electricity generated from coal and large amounts of it are liquefied. More emissions come from industrial processes such as steel and cement production.

It's not as if nothing can be done about this. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) publishes guides for countries' policymakers on how to improve the energy intensity of industrial activity to make it more efficient, competitive and profitable while at the same time reducing energy use, costs and emissions. South Africa, and countries like it, need rapidly to educate themselves about the exciting potential offered by these pathways and build them into their development plans – not to mention their revised INDCs.

Another INDC up for criticism is that of Turkey. CAT says that if every country were to adopt the same level of ambition as Turkey's plan, then the planet as a whole would be likely to exceed a 4°C temperature rise. Part of the problem is that Turkey is planning to build a number of new coal-burning power plants. These would cancel out all of the anti-global warming measures described in its plan.

Moreover the country appears to be set to reduce its number of wind and solar powered plants. This is irrational because technically, its solar and wind resources are much higher than Germany's so it would be cost-effective to exploit them. Solar thermal power plants do not suffer from the same problems of intermittency as photovoltaic plants since they store the sun's energy in molten salts to power steam turbines during the night.

“Turkey’s renewable energy targets do not reflect the potential of a country with a solar system performance 50% higher than in Germany and a technical wind power potential of 275 GW,” said Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute.

Indonesia, whose rainforests have been famously going up in smoke for many years, comes up for criticism and its INDC is also labelled "inadequate". CAT says its INDC displays a "profound" lack of detail and credibility "around both its emissions projections for deforestation and its plans to slow emissions growth". At the very least it needs to provide separate targets for emissions from forestry, land use and energy and then show how those targets are going to be met.

Independent studies based on satellite data show a 20% yearly rise in deforestation in Indonesia since 2001, despite a temporary government prohibition on the clearing of primary forest and the conversion of peatlands between 2010 and 2016. New figures show that emissions from forest fires could be as high as 1GtCO2e in 2015, which is already higher than estimates for total emissions from the land use sector in Indonesia’s national data for 2015.

Clearly its figures do not stack up. Perhaps the country is just saying what it thinks the UNFCCC wants to hear. It raises the question: for how many other countries is this true?

Indonesia does plan to increase renewables to 23% of primary energy by 2025 from 6% today, but will also add 20 GW from new coal-fired plants.

Building new coal-fired plants locks countries into carbon-intensive futures for decades to come. "This is the antithesis to the kind of decarbonised world we need to hold warming below 2 degrees," says Bill Hare.

Continuing to think that the world can carry on the way it has, while at the same time pretending that it is tackling climate change, could be described as a form of schizophrenia.

This brief look at just a few nations' submitted plans for tackling climate change shows that policymakers and politicians have a long way to go to persuade everybody in their governments of the necessity for and advantages – economic and social and environmental – of moving to a low carbon future.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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