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A world of trouble

A World of Troubles

by Dave Elliott

With the typhoon disaster in the Philippines, Japan’s cut back on its climate targets and Australia abandoning its climate policy, the latest gathering of the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change in Poland last October was a rather gloomy affair. The Fifth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had reinforced a key message from the basic science- it was now 95 % certain that climate change was caused by human activities, up from 90% previously. And the results were likely to be serious. The United Nations Environment Programme then issued a warning that if countries failed to take immediate steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the global temperature will be significantly more likely to rise above 2˚C.

After reviewing a large number of new studies, UNEP warned it might not be possible to tackle climate if the world waits until 2020 since it will be ‘locked in’ to fossil fuel-based infrastructure, and energy saving opportunities will have been lost. It called on governments to step up action to prevent catastrophic climate change.

However, apart from the heroic efforts of Germany, China’s rapidly expanding renewables programme, and a better mood in the USA, little has happened since, except excuses and special pleading about the costs of phasing out fossil fuels and using renewables, coupled with what some see as red herrings -chasing after ways to allow us to continue to use fossil fuel.  In reality, as an MIT Technology Review article noted, Carbon Capture and Storage seems to be loosing traction. It noted that a recent report from the International Energy Agency warned that the development and deployment of CCS was ‘seriously off pace’ as a way to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 2 °C. The window to begin applying CCS toward consequential emissions reduction is ‘shrinking fast,’ it says.  CCS must supply over a fifth of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 to keep the temperature rise below 2 °C. However there are only eight large-scale CCS projects in operation at present, according to the Global CCS Institute, none of which are at power plants. These projects, in all, store nearly 20 million metric tons of CO2 per year. By comparison, coal burning in the US and China emits about 2.1 billion and 6.95 billion metric tons, respectively, each year. To meet the 2 °C goal, says the IEA, a minimum of 110 additional projects at power plants and industrial facilities should be brought on line by 2020. Although 67 large-scale projects are in planning or construction phases, it can take more than a decade to build a new CCS project.

The EU was initially very keen on CCS, but the pace of development has slowed.The USA is still trying, with 18 projects chosen to receive $84 m in federal funding to help improve the efficiency and drive down costs. There are also some new ideas emerging. University of Minnesota spin off company Heat Mining has proposed using captured CO2 in geothermal projects instead of injecting water to extract heat. It would capture more heat and could be used to run more efficient gas turbines rather than steam plants.  But surely you wouldn’t need much CO2 for this? And there are environmental unknowns about CCS. For example there’s some evidence that underground CO2 injection in oil and gas fields may cause earthquakes.

If it can be made to work on a significant scale economically and safely, CCS may have role longer term for capturing emissions from biomass plants, making them negative carbon, but for the moment, what would really help in emission terms is not support for CCS but a cut in subsidies for fossil fuel.

According to the International Energy Agency governments pumped over $0.5 trillion into subsidies for oil, gas and coal in 2012. The IEA has also found that, in 2011, for every $1 in support provided for renewable energy, governments provided another $6 in subsidies to carbon-intensive fuels. A report from the Overseas Development Institute says that the 11 richest high-carbon countries provided a subsidy of $7 for every tonne of greenhouse gas emitted from fossil fuel combustion in 2011 If that money could be retargeted to renewables, then some real progress could be made.

The same could be said for nuclear- for some, the other big great hope. It’s still soaking up resources. Indeed, the European Commission, in a series of reports on state intervention in energy markets, says that subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels distort competition between different energy sources and increase the overall cost to society of electricity generation The European Wind Energy Association commented: ‘The Commission says it will launch a study of subsidy levels across the energy sector, but it must urgently require an immediate end to the huge subsidies given to fossil fuel and nuclear. EU taxpayers gave over €26 bn to fossil fuels in 2011, the documents show. It is disappointing to see the figure of €35 bn subsidy to nuclear energy being removed by the European Commission prior to publication.

However, the Commission has told member states to phase out the use of feed-in tariffs, the dominant form of renewables support in Europe. As green energy technologies mature and costs decline, investment decisions should be driven by the market rather than by guaranteed prices, according to guidance from the commission’s energy department. Though it did accept that there was a case for interim support for the new renewables technologies.

There are also other measures that could help.  Even though the window of opportunity is narrowing, UNEP says that it is still possible to attain the 2020 goal of 44 GtC02e/year through firm and rapid action. ‘Studies reveal that, at costs of up to US$100 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, emissions could be reduced by 14 to 20 GtCO2e compared to business-as-usual levels. For example, simply tightening up the rules governing pledges in the climate negotiations could narrow the gap by about 1-2 GtCO2e, while if countries implement the maximum reductions already pledged without conditions could narrow it by 2-3 GtCO2e. Expanding the scope of pledges could narrow the gap by further 2 GtCO2e. These include covering all emissions in national pledges, having all countries pledge emission reductions, and reducing emissions from international transport’. It adds ‘Adding up the reduction from the tightening of rules, implementing ambitious pledges, and expanding the scope of the current pledges could bring the global community about halfway to closing the gap’.

It says that the remaining gap could be bridged by further international and national action, including through “international cooperative initiatives”, through which countries and other bodies cooperate to promote technologies or policies that have climate benefits, even though climate change mitigation may not be the primary goal of the initiative.

The UDEP report, which involved 70 scientists from 44 scientific groups in 17 countries, was funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety:

In terms of renewables, as I noted above, Germany, along with China, are clearly leaders, and I will be looking at their progress in the next two posts, followed by reviews of the state of play in the US, France and then Japan, and finally the UK- and Scotland.

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