The run-up to the annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (or climate change summit, as it is more commonly known) sees plenty of reports, news stories and stunts designed to focus attention on the issue. The Paris event, due to start at the end of this month, is no exception. The latest story to hit the headlines is that the New York state attorney general has issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil – the world’s largest oil company – for emails and other documents issued over the last four decades to see whether the company adequately warned investors of the risks associated with the use of fossil fuels (NY probes ExxonMobil over climate change risk claims).
ExxonMobil is not the only company in the sights of the AG, Eric Schneiderman; Peabody Energy (a major coal producer) is under similar investigation, and other major energy companies could follow before long. But ExxonMobil is in a vulnerable position, not just as the world’s largest oil company, but because of its past known funding of groups critical of the official line on climate change. Also, in common with other major US oil and gas companies, it did not join a group of 81 companies in signing a White House-sponsored pledge to take more action on climate change as President Obama pushes for a binding deal in Paris (Obama gets climate change deal assist from Google, Coca-Cola and Walmart).
At issue is the argument by the climate change community that there is a ceiling on the total amount of fossil fuels which can be extracted and burnt (in the absence of large-scale carbon capture and storage) without risking dangerously high increases in average temperatures. Logic then dictates that energy companies are overstating the value of their (unsaleable) reserves and so artificially boosting their share prices.
The counter argument is that the world continues to need coal, oil and gas until reliable, secure and affordable alternatives are available. Assuming that investors make rational decisions (not always a given, of course) then the commercial world seems to have accepted the counter argument for the time being. Nevertheless, overtly political actions such as those initiated by Mr Schneiderman are designed both to put doubts in the minds of investors and put pressure on negotiators in Paris to come up with a deal.
Willingness to make a public commitment to action on climate change has become a black and white issue for many, with the sins of ‘good’ companies being forgiven (or forgotten) and the benefits provided by ‘bad’ companies completely overlooked. In a different context, the three headline acts supporting the Obama pledge all come in for intense criticism: Google for tax avoidance, Coca-Cola for contributing to the problem of obesity and Walmart for driving small shops out of business. Similarly, ExxonMobil may be criticised for its stance on climate change, but where did the public image of ‘Beyond Petroleum’ get BP when it caused the Gulf oil spill?
But as conventional energy companies are being criticised, green energy continues to be talked up. At issue is whether there is a ‘carbon bubble’ ready to burst as the world moves away from fossil fuels, or whether there is instead a green investment bubble. Investments in oil and gas companies are valued on the basis of current and projected demand, while any money put into solar, wind or similar green energy projects is essentially valued on the basis of the degree of public or consumer subsidy it receives.
At the moment, many EU member state governments are set on a path of subsidy reduction. There is a view that the cost of renewable energy is continuing to decline at such a rate that no subsidy will be needed in a few years’ time. However, this is a delusion, since the only meaningful figure is the overall system cost, which determines the price the consumer pays. As the amount of wind and solar capacity increases, so does the overall system cost as the need for backup generation capacity, transmission and increased grid resilience rises.
Financial realities dictate that fossil fuels will continue to dominate global energy until the technology is developed to allow a secure electricity supply to be provided from inherently intermittent sources (don’t hold your breath) or until nuclear generating capacity is greatly increased (and there is, unfortunately, little sign of that either). China and India in particular are becoming more rather than less dependent on coal to provide electricity and literally fuel their continued growth.
Despite these realities, some sort of deal will undoubtedly be reached next month in Paris. However, despite the rhetoric, it will do little to further the cause of emissions reduction in the absence of technological breakthroughs. And the scope of a deal is itself unclear, since developing countries have made their participation dependent on the promised $100bn annual funding promised via the Green Climate Fund. Only a fraction of this has been committed and it is difficult to see billions of dollars suddenly being put on the table in just a few weeks’ time.
Doubtless a rabbit of some description will be pulled out of the hat and a fudged deal put together, but progress towards a binding global mitigation policy will continue to be notional. 2016 could then see a turning point. Tired of banging their heads against a brick wall, we may finally see negotiators focus more effort on adaptation policies, which could bring short- and medium-term benefits to hundreds of millions of people however climate systems may develop over coming decades.
But, despite the hopes of some sceptics, the juggernaut of UNFCCC negotiations will continue in some form for the foreseeable future. The trick now will be for the more moderate participants to steer it on a path towards achieving some practical good rather than continue to focus on the increasingly illusory goal of trying to radically cutting emissions by decree alone.