Can the world curb global warming and save $740 billion? Only if the alternative becomes more costly

  • 09 Jun 2014, 14:40
  • Mat Hope

The world could save billions of dollars and avoid dangerous global warming if policymakers double the amount of energy people get from renewable sources, a new report claims.

Sounds great. But the calculation uses a slightly circular logic which relies on the assumption that the alternative - polluting - becomes more costly.

Curbing emissions

The  International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) calls for governments to increase renewable energy's global share from 18 per cent of demand in 2010 to 36 per cent in 2030. Doing so could prevent temperatures rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, it claims.

It bases that statement on figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA says global emissions must not exceed 25 gigatonnes in 2030 to prevent warming of more than two degrees. IRENA claims global emissions could be limited to 25.5 gigatonnes in 2030 if policymakers follow its proposals. That's 15.9 gigatonnes lower than they otherwise may be, as this graph shows:

IRENA emissions

IRENA concludes "renewable energy and energy efficiency are the world's best chances to avoid catastrophic climate change". But it acknowledges those can't be the only policy focuses.

If global emissions are around 25 gigatonnes in 2030, the IEA says policymakers will have to accelerate their efforts to prevent dangerous warming in the following two decades. That means ensuring policymakers divert resources toward curbing industrial and transport sector emissions, too.

$740 billion

While few people doubt renewable energy's potential to curb emissions, critics remain concerned about how much a mass rollout could cost. But IRENA says its proposal could save the global economy $740 billion a year by 2030.

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The EU energy security strategy in 5 graphs

  • 09 Jun 2014, 14:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 World Bank

The EU wants to insulate itself against the risk of energy supply disruption. The crisis in Ukraine has heightened the sense of vulnerability, particularly for those countries in the eastern EU that rely heavily on Russian gas.

In a 237-page background paper the European Commission has explored recent and expected future trends to see how greater energy security could be achieved. Here are five graphs that give you a flavour of what it says.

1. The EU is becoming less energy independent, particularly for gas.

This chart shows that energy imports have accounted for more than half of total EU energy demand since 2005. The growing orange bars at the bottom are for gas. The large green bars are for oil. The blue-green chunk is for coal. The small slivers at the top are for other types of energy imports.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 At 11.03.38

2. The EU is producing fewer fossil fuels

Fossil fuel production in the EU has declined dramatically since the mid-1990s. Gas production fell by 30 per cent between 1995 and 2012 (below left) and coal production by 40 per cent.

The decline was particularly rapid for oil as North sea production started to dry up (below right). EU oil production has halved in the decade to 2012. The UK is still the biggest producer but its share of EU oil production is down from four-fifths to three-fifths of the declining total.

Fossil Fuel Production EU

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Carbon Briefing: What’s going on with China’s climate plans?

  • 06 Jun 2014, 16:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 GoShows

This has been an exciting week for climate policy. First President Obama promised to tackle US coal emissions. Then China said it would limit its overall emissions from 2016.

The world's two biggest emitters taking bold climate action? Well, you know what they say: if it sounds too good to be true...

We've already picked over the reasons why Obama's plan is politically courageous but lacks climate ambition. And it turns out China is only considering at a cap, not promising to wear it.

So what's really going on with China's climate plans? We spoke to some expert China-watchers to find out.

A Chinese cap would be huge

China is now the world's biggest emitter by miles. In 2012 it emitted around 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, nearly a third of the global 34.5 billion total. Its nearest rival, the US, emitted only half as much.

So a cap on China's emissions would be huge - in significance as well as tonnes.

It would provide a massive boost to international climate talks where, ultimately, a global cap is needed. And Lord Deben, chairman of the government's Committee on Climate Change hopes it would kill off the argument that Chinese inaction renders UK or US emissions cuts pointless.

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Why dread, not dollar losses, decrees how we react to climate risks

  • 06 Jun 2014, 15:00
  • Ros Donald

More is spent in the US on planning for earthquakes than for wildfires, even though both are dangerous to populations. So how can decisionmakers do better? A new paper aims to incorporate what we know about the psychology of risk to overcome biases and find a better way of planning for natural hazards. 

Disaster planners normally use estimates equivalent to how much money could be lost when making decisions about what to spend on dangers like hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires. But experts from the University of Colorado say this approach fails to take into account how people view natural hazards. 

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Intensity, pragmatism & flexibility: Three key components of Obama’s carbon pollution plan

  • 05 Jun 2014, 15:55
  • Mat Hope

CC: Greg Goebel

President Obama's plan to cut US emissions was launched with great fanfare earlier this week. Analysts are now scratching their heads trying to work out the details. Here are three of the plan's key components.

Carbon intensity

Monday's  announcement led to a spate of headlines declaring the plan would cut power plant emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. But while that's the potential outcome of the plan, it's not the goal.

The EPA is not telling states how much their power sectors can emit. It is telling them how much they can emit per unit of power generated. The EPA calls this  a "pollution-to-power ratio", but it's more often called carbon intensity.

Based on expected demand for power, it thinks these limits will add up to a 30 per cent power sector emissions cut compared to 2005. But its expectations of demand could be wrong. So emissions could go up even if states meet their carbon intensity targets.

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Could rebranding environmentalism help tackle climate change?

  • 04 Jun 2014, 15:40
  • Mat Hope

Floyd Wilde

Politicians have been trying to address climate change for two decades now, with limited success. Given the scope and urgency of the problem, cirumstances suggests the environmental movement has failed. That means it's time for a new environmentalism.

Or so the argument goes. But does the environmental movement really need rebranding?

Defining failure

The starting point of any movement's next iteration is the old one's inadequacies. New environmentalism is no different.

A couple of years ago, BusinessGreen editor James Murray argued that "environmentalism is in crisis". What was needed, he argued, was "a different response to those that have been tried and proved wanting in the past". That response can be described as  "new environmentalism".

But the crisis message has caveats. Speaking at the New Environmentalism Summit held in Brussels yesterday, UN Environmental Programmes executive director Achim Steiner - who identifies himself as a new environmentalist - warned not to underplay the environmental achievements of the last 20 years. From establishing a global deal to curb global warming to two degrees, to renewable energy accounting for  19 per cent of the world's energy consumption, "while not having solved the problem, [environmentalists] have an extraordinary record of success to point to".

Yet for all the environmental movement's success, global emissions continue to rise. Countries have failed to agree a new global deal to replace the Kyoto protocol that was due to expire in 2012. And green groups widely condemned world leaders' last major effort to do so - the Copenhagen conference in 2009 - as a  failure.

So how might new environmentalism address past deficiencies?

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The IEA weighs in on stranded assets - not just a green conspiracy?

  • 04 Jun 2014, 15:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Bryan Burke

 Demand for fossil fuels would fall dramatically if the world gets serious on climate change, according to projections from the International Energy Agency.

That would leave major oil firms unable to recoup money invested in new supplies, the IEA says. Their fossil fuel assets could lose all value and become 'stranded'.

Smaller slice of the (energy) pie

Fossil fuels' share of the global energy mix will fall from the current 82 per cent to 76 per cent in a 4 degree world, the IEA says. That is a world the IEA calls its 'new policies scenario'. Fossil fuels' share of the global energy mix would fall still further to 65 per cent if we avoid dangerous climate change of 2 degrees - the IEA's 450 scenario.

Gas consumption would be higher than it is today in either case (purple line, below). But serious action to tackle climate change would see oil consumption peak before 2020 (red line). And coal use (brown line) would drop particularly sharply after peaking around 2015, the IEA scenario suggests.

IEA fossil fuel share

This means that in a 2 degree world - according to the IEA - around $300 billion of investment in fossil fuel assets could be "stranded". This figure could increase further if there is a lack of clear policy in the interim which leads to investment in exploration or generating capacity that is not needed.

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IEA: The marginal cost of two degrees

  • 03 Jun 2014, 17:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Calma/IAEA

The world needs to spend $48 trillion between now and 2035 in order to keep the lights on and meet rising demand for energy, the International Energy Agency says in its World Energy Investment Outlook. The bad news is that if you spend all of that money, the IEA's best guess is you get a 4 degree world.

The good news is that if we can collectively muster another $5 trillion - then we can keep the lights on and avoid dangerous climate change, according to the IEA.

IEA chief economist Fatih Birol says:

"The difference is not big… The main issue is not to raise additional capital but to reallocate investments… The world that we would like to see depends on the right investment decisions."

How much does the world need to spend?

Whatever happens to the climate, the world's energy systems have huge investment needs over the next two decades.

The IEA thinks we will need to spend nearly $25 trillion on new coal, oil and gas supplies between now and 2035 (far left, below).

That's to meet its 'new policies scenario' where countries make some new efforts to tackle emissions but there is no global concerted action on climate.

Another $16 trillion will need to be spent on power stations and the transmission networks that distribute power to homes and businesses (blue columns, centre). And $8 trillion will be needed to make homes, cars and factories more efficient (below right).

IEA 1Source: IEA World Energy Investment Outlook


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Q&A: Obama’s plan to cut coal and gas emissions

  • 02 Jun 2014, 15:35
  • Simon Evans

Today marks President Obama's boldest attempt yet to tackle US greenhouse gas emissions. At his request, the US Environmental Protection Agency has published a Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from coal and gas plants.

What is the plan?

The plan aims to cut the emissions of the US power sector 30 per cent on 2005 levels over the next sixteen years. It is open for comment for 120 days and the EPA aims to have final rules in force by June 2015.

Each state in the US will be set their own target. States will have until 30 June 2016 to submit plans explaining how they will meet this target. The EPA says it might allow states to plead for up to two years' extra time.

The proposal covers emissions from 1,600 existing coal and gas-fired power stations across the US. Regulations limiting emissions from new power stations are already in the pipeline.

Why is President Obama doing this?

President Obama has pledged to cut US emissions by 17 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020, 42 per cent by 2030 and 83 per cent by 2050.

The Clean Power Plan does not increase US climate ambition but it does give Obama a better chance of meeting his existing pledges.

He has tried to get the US Congress to pass cap-and-trade laws to regulate emissions before, but every time he has been rebuffed by his political opponents.

He is now relying on executive powers that bypass Congress, and allow the EPA to regulate power sector emissions directly.

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Obama’s new coal rule: Bold climate leadership, a lawsuit waiting to happen, or both?

  • 30 May 2014, 13:30
  • Mat Hope & Simon Evans

Matt H. Wade

On Monday President Obama is  expected to announce draft plans that would aim to cut emissions from coal-fired US power plants by up to 20 per cent.

The plan will make use of executive powers under the Clean Air Act, avoiding the need to get approval from the US Congress. The Obama administration is in the process of using these powers to introduce rules limiting emissions from new power stations.

Now America's existing fleet of coal plants is in the firing line. To soften the blow, US states are expected to be given leeway to meet their share of a national coal emissions target through carbon trading, renewables or energy efficiency.

Here's what the media on both sides of the Atlantic had to say.


The  New York Times says the rule will be Obama's "most forceful effort" to make the US tackle climate change. News analysis website  Vox says the rule shows the president has the strength to act without Congress' approval. It's almost as if the Environmental Protection Agency is now Obama's personal legislative branch, complains  Fox News - which is no fan of either.

The plan is also being watched keenly from afar. The  New York Times says foreign governments are seeing it as a test of the US's seriousness about combating climate change. Former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer  tellsRTCC that the plan is a "critical moment" on the road to a global climate deal.

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