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Renewing the Debate on Renewables

The snazzily titled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, a group of 200 of the world’s leading climate change scientists last week published a new report titled ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’.

As a headline it called for a three to four-fold increase in the spread of renewable plant worldwide as the most ‘realistic’ route to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below the ‘tipping point’ of 480 parts per million (ppm), before the middle of the century.

That rather difficult to reference number is the point at which any recovery from such levels and a prevention of severe impacts of climate change will become unlikely.

This isn’t the first or indeed second time the IPCC have raised these issues, but the third official report into the need for a significant step change in investment in order to allay the worst effects of climate change.

The IPCC have been criticised in the past for taking too conservative an approach to climate change recommendations however this report changes that.

In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change at the lowest cost, the report envisages an energy revolution ending centuries of dominance by fossil fuels – something that will require significant political and commercial change

Such an action doesn’t come cheap with the IPCC forecasting up to 2% of GDP, of every nation, needing to be invested to bring about a renewable energy future.

The report argues that a wholesale reduction in carbon emissions wouldn’t wreck the world economy and that fears of intermittent and unproven replacements were misplaced.

Indeed despite the huge investment required, the report argued that by channelling hundreds of billions away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%.

However despite these assurances simply throwing money at a problem is rarely the answer.

According to report the least costly and risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all fossil fuels over a relatively short time frame and though gas would need to play an important role during the transition, it would do so as a direct replacement for coal burning.

Given the 2012/13 UK fuel mix saw cheap imported US coal making up nearly 40% of all electricity generation replacing that source won’t be easy, especially given the widespread opposition to shale gas and fracking operations.

Even if these obstacles could be overcome, the short, medium and long-term renewable replacements face their own challenges to be accepted.

On shore wind generation is increasingly opposed through rejections of planning applications with the spread of turbines becoming an increasingly politically fraught issue with political parties focussing manifesto policies on whether to support or oppose wind farms.

Off shore wind, whilst less contentious from planning reactions, meets considerable opposition from concerns over the impact on sea birds and other wildlife, and even where their deployment is agreed the underlying cost of offshore wind power is nearly double that of onshore.

Alternative renewable sources such as tidal power are both underdeveloped and unproven in the UK and the only real, proven, and understood ‘non-fossil fuel’ alternative is nuclear energy which brings with it a legacy of opposition, controversy and cost concerns.

The report indeed sees nuclear as a “mature low-carbon option”, but cautions that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns.

The much heralded “clean coal” process of Carbon capture and storage (CCS) where Carbon Dioxide is trapped from coal or gas burning and then buried is also included, however in common with other potential solutions it is untested on a large scale and expensive.

Biofuels could play a “critical role” in cutting emissions, but again the negative effects of such a source loomed large with some biofuels being blamed for their impact on food prices and wildlife.

Whilst pro-renewable agencies present overwhelming evidence of support for renewable energy the reality of on the ground deployment is significantly different – an issue the IPCC needs to tackle to make any headway beyond opinion polls.

Mohamed Adow, Senior Climate Change Advisor at Christian Aid claims:

“Renewable energy is backed by the public; wind power has the support of two thirds (of Britons and the CBI has called on action to tackle climate change, the government should be doing all it can to put the UK at the forefront of this energy revolution not blowing hot and cold on the issue.”

Joss Garman, Deputy Political Director of Greenpeace said:

“These scientists (the IPCC) have shown us that it’s not too late and we can still avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but only if we get behind the clean energy solutions that can slash carbon pollution.

“Renewable energy technologies are already the least-cost option in a growing number of major markets, and they’re getting cheaper all the time. Rather than turning back towards dirty fuels like coal and gas, now is the time for Ministers to double down on our transition towards a cleaner energy system. This report shows that the sooner we act, the cheaper it will be.”

And climate change commentator and UK economist Sir Nicholas Stern has said:

“All political leaders should recognise that a powerful case has been presented for accelerating action against climate change by building cleaner and more efficient economies.”

With Dr Stephan Singer Director of Global Energy Policy at the World Wildlife Federation saying:

“Renewable energy can no longer be considered a niche market. Renewables must – and should – eventually take the full share of the global energy market within the next few decades.”

From the political sphere, the commentary was equally supportive with the EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard saying:

“The report is clear: the more you wait, the more it will cost [and] the more difficult it will become,”

John Kerry, The US secretary of state, adding:

“This report is a wake-up call about global economic opportunity we can seize today as we lead on climate change.”

And our own Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change saying:

“The [report shows] the tools we need to tackle climate change are available, but international efforts need to significantly increase.”

In a series of stark warnings the three reports prepared by the IPCC have respectively highlighted that:

  • Global temperatures would rise by 0.3-4.8C this century, on top of roughly 0.7C since the industrial revolution. With Seas being forecast to rise by 26-82cm by 2100
  • Climate change promises to be a catalyst for conflict, hunger, floods and mass displacement even with every minuscule rise in temperature.
  • And the UN target to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit) is only now feasible if surging carbon emissions are swiftly braked and then reversed

Against this backdrop and the overwhelming scientific and political ‘support’ for action, it is the ‘reality’ of what happens on the ground that will be the real barometer as to whether we can expect more reports or real actions and whether the actions will involve diversion of investment or supplementary costs which beyond the academic world, nations and businesses are ill-prepared to afford right now.

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