How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto, and its impact faded as first the United States and then other major producers of greenhouse gases declined to ratify the treaty or dropped out.

High-level diplomacy to secure a Paris deal, in contrast, began building in earnest last year with a bilateral climate agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping—representing the largest climate polluters and, respectively, the developed and developing worlds. Global buy-in grew over the following 12 months as one nation after another anted in with their own emissions reduction plans. “Heading into Paris, more than 180 countries producing more than 90 percent of global emissions had submitted [pledges], a much broader response than many had anticipated,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

Broad political backing was then decisively reaffirmed on day one of the two-week talks, which 150 world leaders attended in the largest single-day gathering ever of heads of state. Their presence empowered negotiators to move beyond entrenched positions according to the Guardian’s deal-making narrative. Angela Merkel secured a personal pledge from Vladimir Putin that major oil and gas exporter Russia would not block a deal. Obama huddled with Xi Jinping and Indian president Narendra Modi, as well as with leaders of some of the least developed and thus most vulnerable of the 196 nations present.

Developing high-level trust helped overcome the toughest disagreements, according to The Guardian, after a “coalition of high ambition” formed in the final days between less-developed countries and some big developed countries, including Canada. The latter, often seen as a deal-blocker at earlier climate talks, came to Paris with new marching order after October elections in which Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau defeated the Conservative Party led by the Albertan oil and gas supporter Stephen Harper.

Ultimately every nation counted because any one could have squelched the consensus-based negotiations. As Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey writes, “most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries—the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec.” The annual UN climate talks are, “one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies.”

A second major distinction for the Paris Agreement—and one that secured support from small island nations—is that this climate deal is pegged to scientifically-defined climate targets. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction goals reflected political viability, the central stated purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “hold global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.”

Both targets derive from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Holding warming to 2 C is the scientific body’s consensus threshold for avoiding “catastrophic” impacts, which it says will require complete elimination of carbon emissions in the second half of the 21st Century. Faster action is required to meet the more stringent 1.5 C limit, which is the maximum warming allowable if small island nations are to be saved from sea level rise.

Prior to the Paris meeting few players were talking seriously about the 1.5 C limit, and rapidly-industrializing and coal-dependent China and India held out against its inclusion until the meeting’s final days. They ultimately accepted it in exchange for other provisions, such as a guarantee that developed countries will provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries comply with the deal and adapt to climate change. As Prime Minister Modi puts it: “Climate justice won.”

World leaders agreed to these science-based criteria for success knowing full well that they were not yet capable of hitting the targets. The pre-Paris action plans their nations submitted were estimated to put the world on a path for a temperature rise of 2.7 C or greater.

However, the deal includes antidotes to this apparent “reality gap,” creating mechanisms for assessing national action plans, verifying progress towards achieving them, and regularly increasing their ambition. These pathways for future emissions reductions are the number one source of post-Paris optimism for Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization.

Instead of defining legally-binding reductions for a set period as the Kyoto Protocol had—and thus setting the Paris Agreement on a path to similarly circumscribed impact—the Paris Agreement requires nations to set their own plans for emissions reductions. But it also demands that they update and tighten their plans regularly, and calls for transparent mechanisms for reporting and verifying progress.

By 2020 and every five years thereafter, wrote Morgan in a blog post early this week, countries will submit more ambitious action plans. There will also be a five-year global review of collective progress. The numbers will be both transparent, and verifiable. “Universal and harmonized accounting, reporting and verification requirements will hold all countries accountable,” according to Morgan.

Elliot Diringer, C2ES’ executive vice president, agrees: “This cycle of commitment—tell us what you’ll do, show us you’re doing it, tell us what you’ll do next—will strengthen confidence that all countries are doing their fair share. And that will make it easier for each to do more.”

One final reason to believe that the Paris Agreement is worth more than its papier: the reaction of global stock markets, where coal firms sank and renewable stocks surged on Monday in response to the deal.“The transition to clean energy will take place on a long and bumpy road, but investors appear to be taking the transition seriously,” noted yesterday.

Reuters cited several analysts whose views captured the market assessment, including a note from London-based financial services firm Barclays that summed up the deal thusly: “We think the Paris agreement represents a strong outcome and will therefore help boost the long-term fundamentals of the capital-goods and low-carbon power-generation sectors while weakening the long-term fundamentals of fossil-fuel industries.”

Even Greenpeace—the environmental movement’s most respectable outsiders—took a moment to be (semi) hopeful in a statement by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause… The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Mideast Morass Dims Mediterranean Solar Hopes

abbas-sarkozy-and-olmert-at-paris-summit-credit-l-blevennec-elysee-photo-servicePlanning for massive development of North Africa’s solar energy potential became “collateral damage” of the war in Gaza this winter and won’t restart for at least another month, according to French newspaper Le Monde (article en Français).

The 43 countries of the Union for the Mediterranean, which includes Muslim nations such as Egypt and Algeria as well as Israel, adopted solar energy as its keynote project last summer. And last fall the European Commission endorsed the need for a high voltage DC supergrid to share the resulting clean energy with Europe. Planning froze in late December, however, after Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza in response to rocket fire.

Participation of Muslim countries in a development partnership with Israel — a coup for French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he launched the Union for the Mediterranean last summer — became politically untenable as Gaza crumbled.

Continue reading

Nukes, Gas, Oil and Coal All Losers in EU Energy Strategy

The European Commission issued its Strategic Energy Review yesterday, proposing energy efficiency investments, a shift to alternative fuel vehicles to end oil dependence in transport, and more aggressive deployment of renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to “decarbonise” the EU electricity supply. Figuring prominantly among its first six “priorities essential for the EU’s energy security” are the North Sea offshore electric power supergrid that Energywise covered in September and the Mediterranean Ring electric interconnection of Europe and North Africa that I’ve been harping on this week. 

The EC energy strategy not only endorses the MedRing, but views it as a component of a future supergrid traversing Europe and stretching beyond the Mediterranean to Iraq, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How would this new vision (and $100/barrel oil) alter the complexion of European energy consumption? The energy review projects that by 2020 total energy demand drops from the equivalent of 1811 metric tons of oil in 2005 to 1672 MTOE in 2020. Demand met by renewables such as wind, solar and hydro more than doubles in real terms from 123 to 274 MTOE, while their share of total demand leaps from 6.8% to 16.4%. Imported renewables – with the MedRing delivering North African wind and solar power – jump 10-fold from 0.8% in 2005 to 8.8% in 2020.

Oil, gas, coal and nuclear, meanwhile, all see a diminished role, both in real terms and as a share of European energy demand. Interestingly the role of natural gas – the low-carbon fossil fuel – drops the most, from 25% to 21%, reflecting EU concern over dependence on gas imports from Russia. Nuclear’s share drops the least, from just slightly over to slightly under 14% of demand; this assumes that nuclear phaseout plans, particularly Germany’s, are followed through. 

How to make it all come true? Accompanying the EC review is a ‘green paper‘ (the EU’s unbleached alternative terminology for what we’d call a ‘white paper’) outlining a variety of new regulatory and financial mechanisms. The EU is already a world leader in terms of incentives for lower carbon energy with strong price supports for solar and wind and a carbon cap and trade program up and running (though still lacking teeth as my Energywise colleague Bill Sweet notes). However, the energy review warns that the primarily national-level financing that drives energy projects today are inadequate to drive infrastructure that is pan-European or larger. A perfect example is the massive investment in high-voltage dc lines needed to turn the MedRing into a bulk power mover (see the second half of our feature on MedRing: “Closing the Circuit”). 

Even less viable under existing financing mechanisms are those projects that entail considerable “non-commercial risks” such as threats of political instability or terrorism. Did someone say North Africa?

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This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Fire the Grid

People around the world answered a call today to “fire the grid” this morning at 11:11am Greenwich Mean Time (7:11am EST). Unfortunately they’re not firing the grid that concerns me — the power grid — but rather the ‘earth grid’. Seems a near-death experience followed by other-worldly “light beings” inspired the organizer to call for a global spiritual embrace of the planet.  

Too bad. I for one thought that they were planning to lay-off electricity for a global hour, much as TV TurnOff Week frees our minds each April. Turning off the grid could be equally instructive.Pacific Northwest National Lab

The hour without power would be an opportunity to appreciate the grid, which has been called the greatest machine ever built and yet is all too often taken for granted. We should pay it heed, because the power grid needs to be modernized if it’s to shoulder increasing loads of clean-but-intermittent renewable energy.

At present investment is low. Universities have eliminated much of their research and teaching related to high-voltage power transmission. The power industry, meanwhile, spends just 0.3 percent of revenues on R&D, one of the lowest rates for any industrial sector. As one power expert lamented during an interview, “We’re beat out easily by the pet food manufacturers.”

Turning off the grid would also serve as a moment to reflect on our growing dependence on the various devices we plug into the power grid — some that we could easily get by without and others that may aggravate the stress and disconnectedness of modern life.

Science writer Phillip Schewe captured that last point succinctly in his wonderfully written precis on modern power systems: The Grid. Describing New Yorkers’ experiences of the August 14, 2003 blackout — the largest power system failure in history — Schewe writes that “after complaining about spoiled food or lost computer files” many also expressed a “sort of joy” at the conversations they enjoyed and the moments they spent with their children: “Provided it wasn’t too inconvenient, the absence of electricity was welcome. At least for a night.”

In The Grid Schewe toys with making the blackout a monthly affair, then rejects it as impractical. But one hour a year might not be so bad…

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Payoff from Sustained Solar Power R&D

Something good is happening in the world of photovoltaics: renewed investment in R&D is increasing the efficiency with which solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. See, for example, two reports I recently posted to the MIT Technology Review website:

Today’s on the latest in plastic solar cells: “Record Efficiency for Plastic Solar Cells”. And last month’s on the high-output crystal cells employed mostly in satellites: “Ultra-efficient Photovoltaics”.

That such performance gains are occurring in cells employing such radically different technologies suggests a systemic development. Alan Heeger, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner behind today’s advance in plastic power, told me his greatest hope is that the U.S. Department of Energy funding flowing once again to solar R&D will endure.

Consistent support is something the U.S. solar research community has never had. Support for PV jumped amid the 1970s energy crises, crashed with the energy price slide under Reagan, came back under Clinton and then fell again when Bush arrived. Plastic photovoltaics suffered similar short-term thinking in 2005 when DARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency) quietly shelved a $40 million R&D program in plastic and other forms of “organic” solar after just one year of research.

“My hope is that interest on the part of the funding agencies and more generally on the part of the people in this country is sustained,” says Heeger. Only that consistency, he told me, will deliver the improvements required to make solar a big part of the solution.

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Getting Past the Fear

We are suddenly petrified by carbon dioxide. Not because the risk of climate change is overblown, but because our technological mastery over this simple gas has been vastly undersold. By applying this technological mastery, readily-available carbon-neutral energy sources and efficient vehicles we can stop treating Earth’s atmosphere like a garbage dump, just as cities in the industrial world (and increasingly beyond) no longer flush refuse into rivers and bays. That is the message of Carbon-Nation, a blog to blow off the haze of claims and counter-claims obscuring climate change solutions, charting the technological paths available today to co2-capture at esbjerg in-denmark-small.jpgre-energize our economies.

Starting with carbon capture. Why do so many still view the capture of CO2 from power plants as science fiction, or at best impractical? CO2 leavens our bread, bubbles our soda, animates the pistons powering our combustion engines, and even dry cleans our best ensembles. We know how to handle this stuff. In fact, CO2 is rapidly becoming the key to domestic oil production: Since the 1970s U.S. oil producers have pumped millions of tons of CO2 into their rapidly maturing oil wells to free up the liquid gold trapped within (collecting handsome tax breaks in the process).

They’ll use hundreds of millions of tons more in the decades to come. In other words storing carbon underground is already standard practice in the oilpatch — and profitable to boot. See, for example, my story “Carbon Dioxide for Sale” in MIT’s Technology Review on Dakota Gasification, which buries more CO2 pollution in oilfields in a year than a hundred thousand cars release in their operational lifetime.

If the technology to capture and store CO2 is viable today, why does CO2’s growing concentration in Earth’s atmosphere leave us feeling so powerless? Why do we let utilities build new carbon-spewing coal plants and automakers build unreformed combustion engines? Because the anti-climate PR campaigns financed by oil companies, automakers, coal producers and utilities told us that reforming our energy systems would bankrupt the economy.

Carbon-Nation will seek to deliver the knowledge available to master that fear and to implement solutions that will give us cleaner, higher-performing energy system.

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