Report 6 from #CoP21 in Paris - Friday 4 December 2015

5th December 2015
Press Release

An Taisce has a few members attending CoP at various times over the next two weeks. We are bringing you a frequent series of background reports on what is (or is not) happening on the ground.

You can see them all at http://www.antaisce.org/articles/whats-happening-on-the-ground-at-cop21

Our sixth is from Paul Price, a member of An Taisce's Climate Change Committee. Paul is a conservation carpenter with a MSc in Sustainable Development.

We really recommend you read these for the quality of Paul’s pen pictures of CoP21 as seen by a NGO participant

Report 6 from #CoP21 in Paris - Friday 4 December 2015

Energy powers everything we are and do, in calories from food, fuel for heat and as the source of our electricity for lighting. These and much more. One can make a good argument that the very value basis of the money we use is simply a proxy for the energy equivalent that a euro or a dollar can buy.

To date more than four fifths of the energy the world uses continues to come from fossil fuel that, unfortunately for us, turns out, when burned at a our globalised scale, to come with the bad side effect of upsetting the energy balance of the atmosphere. By absorbing more reflected solar radiation the increase amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing rapid global warming and accelerating climate change. So what can we do about energy.

My day at CoP21 today, starkly highlighted the conflict between the globally accepted urgent need for all nations to make a swift energy transformation away from fossil fuels to restrict global warming (given the ever-clearer climate science), as against the hypocritical reality of the continued very large subsidies our government’s dole out to prospect for and produce ever more fossil fuels.

How the world divides up, or ‘burden shares’, effort to cut CO₂ emissions has always been the sticking point of the climate negotiations since they started twenty-odd years ago. This time, rather than insisting on nations negotiating a fair share of emissions between them, for Paris the parties (meaning all the nations here) have prepared what are called INDCs.

These Intended Determined National Contributions are supposed to be ambitious, transparent and equitable [Note 1] but the main aim has been to cajole every nation to reveal at least a minimum level of ambition as a stepping-stone to the kind of collective global effort that is actually needed. In many ways this has been a successful way of moving things on from being totally stuck, though you have to wonder about the weak ‘intended’. Meanwhile, the Earth’s climate system just keeps warming ever more, in response to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the longer real and binding emissions reduction to limit warming is delayed.

At the first expert panel I got to today, economists and climate scientists described the likely projected implications of the INDCs submitted by different countries and the climate risks attached to average global surface warming of 1.5ºC or 2ºC above pre-industrial.

Summarising the data is straightforward enough: there is a massive gap between the limited ambition of the pledges made by nations and the high level of ambition required by the very limited, remaining future carbon budget for 2ºC (let alone the even smaller quota allowable to avoid more than 1.5ºC of warming). Also, in going from 1.5ºC to 2ºC there is a serious increase in risk to future crop yields, coral reefs and heat wave duration (a very big risk to people living in the tropics). In addition there will likely be a substantial increase in crossed tipping points toward irreversible, long-term melt of the Greenland and West Antarctica. This is a boggling amount of risk to be taking on.

Economists like to do cost-benefit analysis to compare the costs of acting on a problem versus the benefits of acting. There are some big difficulties in doing this for climate change, partly because of the very difficult to determine the costs of damages that could occur from 1.5ºC, 2ºC or 4ºC of warming, but also because CO₂ is not a problem that goes away over time, the resultant planetary-scale global warming is essentially irreversible on human time-scales (lasting over a thousand years).

If the very basis of our wealth – a stable climate for our food production and habitability, and a stable seal level – is going to be rapidly degraded over time, how can we easily say that we will just get wealthier? Can we really so easily discount future bad outcomes against increased wealth? It’s hard not to think we need to step back and say to ourselves, whether there is any need for the economic analysis given the science showing that we need to get away from burning carbon very fast.

A review of climate risk economics presented at the panel today indicated that there is a fast growing economic and climate literature to show that damage costs have been badly underestimated, thereby making action at large scale right now a far smarter option. If the current INDC pledges were achieved, the costs by 2100, as indicated today would still be equivalent to bailing out the US economy from the recent financial crash every year. The costs increase very greatly if the pledges were not to be achieved.

On the current global emissions trajectory, a recent study published in the top-rated academic journal Nature estimates that up to 75% of the global economy would be lost to climate damages if emissions are not controlled. The evidence is very strong that even if it seems very expensive, acting now is very likely to be far cheaper and definitely far safer than acting later. And delaying global action only builds up trouble because of the cumulative problem of CO₂.

A question by the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson made it apparent that even the difficult pathways shown by the economists this morning are likely to be greatly over optimistic because they assume that we can somehow have negative emissions technologies in future, meaning ways of taking large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, most of all by burning woody biomass and then capturing and burying the CO₂.

The trouble with this is that the technology does not exist yet and it seems unlikely to be viable if energy use is at anything like today’s level. The economist agreed that every one of the economic models considered that achieving peak global emissions by 2020 relies on negative emissions. Anderson’s research [Note 2] suggests that wealthy nations need to reduce emissions starting this year at “double-digit” annual percentage rates, but also that this is in fact doable if the emergency level of societal commitment was engaged to cut energy demand and switch to renewables. Time is running out for 2ºC though.

In light of all this it was very odd indeed or, more accurately, bizarrely contradictory, to hear from the expert panel that the richest nations in the world, who have repeatedly agreed to act first and most deeply to cut emissions and reduce the use of fossil fuels, are in fact continuing to massively subsidise fossil fuel exploration and production. Figures presented today showed that the G20 group of largest economies spent over $450 Billion in the last year in fossil fuel subsidies, more than four times the subsidies to renewables and also four times larger than global development aid.

Maeve McLynn of Climate Action Network noted that they are even spending $78 Billion a year in their own countries. This makes no sense at all. Ireland could be seen as one of the worst cases as we are subsidising the burning of peat for otherwise uneconomic electricity to the tune of a €120 million per year yet we have only committed to put a paltry total of €2 million toward the Green Climate Fund to help them adapt to the resulting effects. Personally, I think this is both pathetic and embarrassing, though others and other nations might well describe it a bit more bluntly.

Perhaps the only way to combat this kind of financial foolishness is to make it explicit to the banks and populaces that fund it just how much cost and risk attaches to this kind of activity. Carbon Tracker [Note 3] [Note 4] is a bunch of investment bankers who carry out just such analyses. We know that at least two thirds of the fossil fuel already discovered needs to stay in the the ground so their analyses determine exactly which fossil fuel projects and where are economically unviable. The non-profit Carbon Tracker are aligning financial and capital markets risk with climate risk. As their lead said, “carbon in the ground is our generation’s nuclear warheads and we get to decide how much of it to let out”. Investing in mines or wells that can never repay investment creates a carbon bubble risking an abrupt transition, something companies like Kodak don’t survive to regret.

Earlier today, he said, he was at an event where Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and Michael Bloomberg, launched a global taskforce to push hard for global disclosure of financial climate risk to invested capital and subsidies. It’s becoming very obvious to investors and pension funds that there is a lot of unburnable carbon and so there is a very large risk premium attached to investing in developing fossil fuels. Given climate risk there is no economic case at all for developing new coal mines and it is only public subsidies and, effectively, politically and vested-interest motivated climate denial that keeps giving tax breaks to fossil fuel production.

In Ireland of course we are still burning peat, an even dirtier fossil fuels than coal, using it both as turf and briquettes for heat, and for heavily subsidised electric power. Tradition and local interest may be strongly against change but now a new reality does need to be faced. It makes sense not to delay.

Coal equities have already lost 80% of value in the past 5 years, taking large amounts of pension fund monies down with them. After hearing the experts speaking today it’s very hard to see how burning peat makes any sense at all for our economy. We could use €118 million a year to fund retrofits, retrofit jobs and community owned renewable energy for the Midlands [Note 5] making us more climate and energy secure, and we could still donate much more than €2 million euro every year to the Green Climate Fund. Knowing the history of continuing support from Irish people for developing countries, it’s easy to think that if we fully appreciated the level of climate risk those nations are facing due to our rich-world emissions, we’d be even more generous.

ENDS

For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: publicaffairs@antaisce.org
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
www.antaisce.org

Note 1 What is an INDC? http://www.wri.org/indc-definition
Note 2 Kevin Anderson's Research http://kevinanderson.info/blog/duality-in-climate-science/
Note 3 Carbon Tracker http://www.carbontracker.org/
Note 4 The $2 trillion stranded assets danger zone: How fossil fuel firms risk destroying investor returns http://www.carbontracker.org/report/stranded-assets-danger-zone/
Note 5 Money to burn? Or 3,000 sustainable jobs for the Midlands http://www.antaisce.org/articles/money-to-burn-or-3000-sustainable-jobs-for-the-midlands