June 14, 2016

Clean Energy Is Key to Meeting the Goals of the Paris Climate Deal

Energy minsters and clean energy leaders from around the world descended upon San Francisco, California, this week for the seventh Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), the first major international follow-up to the historic global climate accord struck in Paris last December. 

Diplomats and negotiators have rightly been praised for the success of the COP 21 Paris agreement, the most comprehensive global deal to date on climate change, with buy-in from virtually every nation on earth. But to mitigate the worst effects of climate change by displacing greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, countries must expand their clean energy infrastructure.

The CEM, which has met annually since it began in 2010 as an offshoot of a 2009 Obama administration initiative, is a 23-country body, in addition to the European Commission, mandated as “a forum of the world’s largest and most forward-leaning countries working together to accelerate the global transition to clean energy.” Together, the parties account for 75 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 90 percent of global investments in clean energy. 

The meeting took place in parallel to the inaugural summit of Mission Innovation, a newly created 20-nation group of largely corresponding countries formed on the sidelines of Paris last year by the world’s top polluters and clean energy investors. Mission Innovation hopes to double in five years overall government-directed research and development on existing and new clean energy technologies from $15 billion a year to $30 billion a year by 2021.

Much of the success or failure in fighting carbon emissions in the coming decades will hinge on the successful development of clean energy resources and technologies. That will be accomplished by encouraging further investment in renewables, but also by promoting energy efficiency, finding ways to store excess power production, and putting in place better electrical grids.

Fortunately for clean energy advocates, a number of these moves are well underway.

For one, the costs of renewable energy technologies, particularly in solar power, continue to fall rapidly. That makes them not only more economically viable compared to cheaper fossil fuels, but also provides a way for poorer countries to improve their ill-equipped energy infrastructure and develop homegrown industries. 

Moreover, 2015 saw a record level of global public- and private-sector clean energy investment to the tune of $285.9 billion,according to figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a clean energy research firm. It said investments from developing countries surpassed those of advanced economies for the first time.

Since a “bold, grand bargain” for dealing with climate change is so elusive, the priority should be on smaller but more attainable measures, like getting the world’s biggest polluters to invest in clean energy.

For the sixth straight year, renewable energy saw more new net power capacity additions worldwide than fossil fuels, according to REN21, a global renewable energy policy network, in its 2016 annual report. In all, it said renewable energy delivered nearly one-fifth of all energy consumption in 2015, and was responsible for nearly one-fourth of the world’s electricity production. 

Finally, the International Energy Agency, the world’s leading energy forecaster, said that CO2 emissions had remained flat for two years running—the first time in almost four decades that had happened during a period of global economic growth.

But far more work remains to be done to make a credible dent on goals to avoid the worst climate change scenarios predicted by experts, including rising seas and more severe weather that are likely to exacerbate migration crises, resource shortages and conflict. 

“This energy transition that every country needs to go through is something that nobody has ever gone through before,” Rachel Kyte, CEO and special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, a public-private forum, said ahead of the gathering in San Francisco. 

“Just the amount of management from a government perspective is extraordinary, without thinking through the details of where we are, where we need to be, how we get there, and the financing and public-private partnerships that it will require.” 

At the summit, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz said, “It’s the government-private sector partnership that will actually get the work done on the Paris accord.” 

The CEM has recently spearheaded efforts to increase energy efficiency in order to reduce global emissions. It also launched the Clean Energy Solutions Center, its advisory arm for governments on deploying clean energy technologies, and committed to unveiling new external financing for clean energy projects. Some 40 percent of countries are relying on such financing to meet their climate pledges, according to Kyte.
At the centerpiece of the nearly unanimous global scientific consensus on fighting climate change is preventing an average rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. An average 1-degree rise has already occurred. While the Paris agreement itself pledged for the slightly vague language of “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” it called for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prepare a 2018 report detailing specific steps the world can take to reach the more ambitious 1.5-degree target, the preferred benchmark for most scientists.

But hitting those targets depends on countries meeting the objectives they set out in Paris, known officially as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. Those pledges are not legally binding and run the gamut from overly optimistic to exceedingly vague. 

Yet even success by bodies with a more targeted mission like the CEM will be dependent on both ongoing clean energy trends and governments continuing to prioritize renewables. In the United States, this is far from guaranteed: Washington’s commitment to its own climate plan presented at Paris is imperiled by federal court challenges to the Obama administration’s clean power mandates, while presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says he would“cancel” the Paris agreement altogether if elected.

Forums like the CEM cannot overcome the shortcomings of climate diplomacy on their own. But they can help to coordinate and direct a number of clean energy developments that are already underway and which must continue.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature Climate Change, political scientists Robert Keohane and David Victor argue that such piecemeal efforts on climate change are inescapable given the nature of the international system. But that might be more effective in the end.

“Proceeding by small steps to build confidence and generate patters of reciprocity is not a timid, second-best strategy,” they argue. “Instead, it is essential, because in world politics authority is divided, national preferences vary and there is pervasive suspicion that states seek self-interested gains at the expense of others.” Since a “bold, grand bargain” for dealing with climate change is so elusive, the priority should be on smaller but more attainable measures, like getting the world’s biggest polluters to invest in clean energy.

This approach may appear more modest, but it is essential to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. The cause of clean energy continues to hang front and center in the global climate fight.

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