COP21. Good COP or Bad COP?




On the 12th December 2015 187 countries made a commitment to reduce their Carbon Emissions in order to reduce the effects of Global Warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The legally binding treaty will begin in 2020 and will come into force once 55 countries covering 55% of global emissions have acceded to it. [1]

After more than two decades of political debate, scientific discussions and presentations, analysis, reports and papers the World’s leaders came together and agreed together a plan to contain and reduce the causes of rising global temperatures in a bid to reduce the effects of climate change on humanity whilst continuing to develop the World’s peoples and maintain growing economies.

This article examines some of the key elements of the Paris Agreement and how that may affect the future of fossil fuels in the larger global energy mix.

What is COP?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) consists of 196 parties (countries) of which 192 have ratified the Kyoto Protocol [2]. It was created in response to the problem of global warming and has an ultimate goal of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to prevent interference with the climate.

Every year since 1995 there has been a Conference of the Parties (COP) in different cities around the world. The first was held in Berlin. The third was held in Kyoto in 1997, which is where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. The 21st was held in Paris between 30th November and 12th December 2015 and has been daubed the "Paris Agreement".

This conference (COP21) has been hailed as a landmark victory for curbing climate change because after 20 years of political wrangling, admittedly with some progress along the way, there has finally been an overwhelming agreement to real action across the globe.

The Main Elements of the Agreement

The main elements of the Paris Agreement [3] are:

The agreement will be open for signature and adoption in New York from 22nd April 2016 to 21st April 2017 and will come into force once 55 countries covering 55% of global emissions have agreed to it.

Why a Global Agreement?

Over the last 150 years humanity has been burning fossil fuels on an ever-increasing scale to provide heat, power and transportation. This has resulted in more carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the atmosphere than the planet’s existing carbon sinks can absorb. The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, in the atmosphere, has been identified as the main cause of rising global temperatures, which in turn, if not checked, are likely to have an increasingly damaging effect on the environment and human life and activity.

The Global Carbon Cycle shown below describes what is happening and the problem we are facing. Whilst there is a natural global cycling of over 700 gigatons/year of CO2, the increased burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, as well as changing land use, agriculture, and particularly forest clearing, has upset this cycle, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which in turn lead to the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect, whereby additional heat is trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to rising temperatures.


Figure 1 - Global carbon cycle. Numbers represent flux of carbon dioxide in gigatons [4]

This problem is affecting the whole of the world as global temperatures rise changing our weather patterns, and has been linked to increased droughts, flooding, melting ice caps and crop failures. What we have experienced so far is small in comparison to what we are likely to see if we carry on with "business as usual", and allow CO2 emissions to continue to be released on a rising global scale.

Figure 2 gives an indication of how temperatures may rise globally if left unchecked. This is cause for grave concern as there is evidence to suggest that every 1°C of warming will eventually cause 2.3 metres rise in sea level. [5]


Figure 2 [6]

This is not good news for low-lying islands which may be inundated and become uninhabitable, not to mention destruction of coral reefs and eroded costal areas. Then there are the unknown effects this will continue to have on our already unpredictable weather patterns.

As a global problem, which can only be solved, over time, by the nations of the world, an agreement is needed on what a low carbon future is, how it can be implemented and over what time scale. The Paris Agreement is such an agreement and contains pledges of carbon emission cuts from the nations, but will these pledges be enough?

The Pledges

The agreeing Parties have pledged to supply emissions targets known as Intended National Determined Contributions (INDC), which will be reviewed every five years in an attempt to encourage nations to do better. These targets are not legally binding, but they do open up a new level of transparency and will encourage a measure of face saving, or not, depending on how each nation performs (peer pressure on a grand scale!).

Figure 3 shows how things stand at this moment in time which in itself underlines how much work is required to meet the 2°C threshold, let alone 1.5°C. The Paris pledges in themselves may not be enough to meet these targets, but they represent a significant starting point, which may then be developed at a later stage.


Figure 3 [7]

Land, vegetation and the oceans are more than capable of dealing with naturally occurring carbon emissions and have kept this in balance for thousands of years. It’s only in the last 100 years or so that we have started to see a shift in the status quo as more emissions have been released than can naturally be dealt with.

For the first time in the history of the world, mankind has the opportunity to do something about holding in check and, hopefully, over time, reversing climate change, albeit something brought on by our own activities. Or as expressed by President Obama, "this agreement represents the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet we’ve got". [8]

Low Carbon Future

The only way that this Agreement will actually work and the global temperature held in check is if we do something about it. The question is what, and how can this new Agreement help?

One of the notable differences about this COP is the participation by major business leaders. They have recognised that something has to change if they are to continue to provide the goods, services and employment that millions of people have come to rely on. These are the people who will hold the governments to account if they fail to adhere to the changes that they have signed their respective nations up to. They will also be the driving force behind the changes that will surely come to ensure that the targets are met. [9]

The Paris Agreement has come at a time when new power generation investment, in the UK at least, is desperately needed and will now help investors to decide which projects have a long-term future and which don’t.

This long awaited signal should be another encouragement for renewable power generation as many cities and countries will want to start to move towards carbon neutrality over the coming decades.

Case Study - Uruguay

One notable example of this is Uruguay. This country, with a population of 3.4 million, now generates nearly 95% of its electricity from renewable sources. This success was underpinned by providing investors a secure environment, in the context of a nationwide plan that had cross-party support.

In less than 10 years Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint and now pledges an 88% cut in carbon emissions by 2017 compared with an average for 2009-2013.

45% of Uruquay’s energy mix is oil for transport, so there is still work to do there, but by fostering good relations between the public and private sector along with clear decision making and a supportive regulatory environment it should be possible to reach to the goal of becoming carbon neutral. [10]

and the Poorer Countries…?

Provision has been made within the Agreement to help poorer countries to change and adopt new technologies as well as to help them when catastrophic weather hits and devastates their land and infrastructure.

This Climate Finance has been set to the tune of $100 billion a year by 2020 along with a commitment for more finance in the future.

What Does this Mean for Fossil Fuels?

Fossil fuel usage has been rising strongly over most of the last 100 years and is expected to keep rising in the short to medium term, as industrialisation in many developing countries is supported by coal-fired power generation, whilst oil consumption for transport also continues to grow. However, in the medium to long term fossil fuel consumption is expected to peak and then decline with coal, oil and to a lesser extent gas, being replaced with greater use of renewable energy[11]. An alternative approach would be the successful development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which would enable fossil fuels still to be used in a low-carbon future.

Natural gas still has a large part to play in the global energy mix as power producers move away from coal and the transport sector makes a move away from oil. Apart from the tightening of emissions rules, falling gas prices, which are largely due a combination of lower oil prices (many gas contracts are indexed to oil prices), increasing oversupply due to fracking in the US and more gas and LNG elsewhere, has started to make a difference in convincing different sectors to make a switch to newer technologies.

Whilst natural gas is significantly cleaner to burn than oil or coal it does still emit CO2 and so should have only a limited role in an effective long-term climate strategy[12] . Having said that though it does offer important advantages in the short to medium term.

Conclusion

So, finally, after two or more decades of political debate the leaders of the World have come together and agreed a framework that could potentially restore the balance of CO2 emissions for our planet and mitigate the worst impacts of global warming.

For most of the World’s’ population this Conference of the Parties will be regarded as a good COP. For some though it signals the coming of the end of the age of fossil fuels and so may well be regarded as a bad COP. For example, there is an argument that Saudi Arabia’s decision to increase oil production over the last year, which has contributed to the major decline in oil prices, is in part driven by the recognition that future oil production may be worth less in a low carbon world.

We must remember though that fossil fuels have been a major step in the development of the world and we wouldn’t be where we are today without that step.

That there will be big changes there is no doubt. The question now is will the countries of the world fulfill their largely voluntary pledges, will we act for the sake of future generations or will we continue to just go about our business hoping that someone else will make all the decisions, all the changes and bear all the costs?

January 2016


Footnotes

  1. http://www.e3g.org/library/judging-cop21-outcome-and-whats-next-for-climate-action
  2. http://newsroom.unfccc.int/about/
  3. http://unfccc.int/documentation/documents/advanced_search/items/6911.php?priref=600008831
  4. https://www.skepticalscience.com/human-co2-smaller-than-natural-emissions.htm
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/dec/30/why-we-need-the-next-to-impossible-15c-temperature-target
  6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35092127
  7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35092127
  8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35084374
  9. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/analysis/2439021/paris-agreement-the-reaction
  10. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/uruguay-makes-dramatic-shift-to-nearly-95-clean-energy
  11. http://www.e3g.org/library/what-paris-means-for-fossil-fuels
  12. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/infographic-climate-change-risks-natural-gas.html#.Vo5CwIQ7Pbo

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