The UN Climate Change Conference COP21 ended last weekend with 195 governments agreeing on a new climate treaty, and this Paris agreement is a big breakthrough! The agreement itself is indeed not detailed, includes no clear figures on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, no strong legal commitments on how to act. Hence my assessment is based on reasons different from other colleagues such as some climate experts, who might be less enthusiastic. However, what makes me so confident is the fact that Paris has started a fundamental paradigm shift, away from the failed Kyoto protocol with its failed goal to set up a globally binding emission limit through carbon cap & trade systems.
In Paris, all 195 governments agreed, and this is a kind of miracle in itself, on achieving greenhouse-gas neutrality by 2050. The important text can be found in Art. 4:
1. In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
Of course we, like many of our friends and allies in the renewables community, in the REN Alliance and beyond, would have preferred to see a clear commitment to a 100 % renewable energy future. There has been remarkable progress towards this goal within less than three years: Our Global100%RE campaign has initiated a broad and global discussion about whether and how a 100 % renewable energy supply is feasible worldwide, I am very happy to say. Several important steps happened since then:
Together with our REN Alliance partners representing all the major renewable energy technologies, we have been able to demonstrate also during our well attended COP side events that a 100 % renewable energy supply is technically feasible, even at a lower average cost than business as usual. Most of the environmental NGOs agreed already last year (not earlier!) on the global 100 % renewable energy goal. Earlier this year, the G7 leaders agreed on decarbonizing the energy supply within this century. This September, Greenpeace came out with its first global 100% Energy (R)evolution scenario, a very detailed and scientifically sound report which has had deep impact on the international energy debate. As part of the Global100%RE campaign, a global 100% cities network was presented during the COP21, in cooperation with ICLEI, with mayors from various cities on all continents committing their municipalities to go for a renewable energy future. Others have been following the Global100%RE’s main goals without explicit reference to it, including e.g. RE100, a group of large international corporations adopting 100 % renewable targets for their companies.
All this paved the way, so that more and more governments agreed on 100% renewable energy as well. Actually the vast majority of the world’s governments would have liked to include such target in Paris in the final text. However, UN conferences require consensus, and, as expected, there was strong resistance from influential groups against such clear goal, so that as a first compromise the term “decarbonization” was suggested. Even this found strong resistance, so that the final and adopted compromise is, as mentioned, a greenhouse-gas neutral energy supply. This overall goal leaves of course still room, probably more a tiny niche, for nuclear power and also for obviously obsolete technologies such as “clean” coal through carbon capture and storage – both technologies characterized by astronomically high cost and unpredictable risk.
With this in mind, I am very confident that simply due to their emission-free nature and the costing development, renewables will be the new benchmark, the new normal when it comes to energy investment. This is the paradigm shift we have been working for, and now it is even part of the official UN climate change agreement, supported by all governments of the world. In other words: Paris has in fact defined 100 % renewable energies as the achievable, the new normal!
With this, for the very first time the UN climate change mitigation efforts are on the right track, away from negotiations about burden-sharing and reduction, but instead now focusing on progress in implementing new, renewable energy technologies as a key component of the economic and practical path to curtailing carbon emissions. This will also fundamentally change the character of future UN climate change conferences, which will gain a far more positive and productive spirit.
Of course the real work begins right away: We, the renewable energy community, must ensure that the global transition towards 100% renewable energy starts now, without delay, and without getting too much distracted by the predictable efforts of the nuclear and clean coal lobbies to increase their shares and to water down the 100% renewable energy target.
One major task for the renewable energy community will hence be to monitor the process launched in Paris: To become a watchdog that governments are actually acting and implementing renewable energy fast, and that renewables are deployed in a way which ensures that they can maximize the benefits for all citizens of the world, in the industrialized countries but perhaps even more so in those regions where there is an urgent need to eradicate poverty once and forever. The abundance of renewable energy in all regions and in all the different forms provides hope for all humans, regardless their current socioeconomic status, to have, whenever needed, abundant energy available, the driving force for economic growth and prosperity.