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Targets aren't everything

In five months’ time, negotiators hope that a global agreement on climate change mitigation will have been reached in Paris. Expectations are once again being raised, for example by bullish pronouncements from the EU’s lead negotiator (No plan B if Paris climate summit ends in failure, says EU climate chief). Following so many earlier failures to agree, governments are working to make agreement as certain as possible, and this week have had a series of ‘informal ministerial consultations’ in Paris. Expectations are also being raised based on the outcome of this two-day meeting (Deal on Climate Change by year-end: French Minister).

As the climate change community sees it, there must be an agreement in December. And an agreement of sorts there certainly will be, but ambitions for binding emissions reduction targets set centrally have evaporated and the outcome will be in the form of governments committing to national targets, many of which will doubtlessly not be met. In the case of China, by some measure the world’s largest emitter, the commitment is in the form of an intended peak in emissions in the mid-term. India will not even commit to that yet. Overall, fewer than 50 countries out of the total of 194 have made commitments, seen as a necessary prerequisite for a successful Paris summit.

Another important aspect of any agreement is the fulfilment of an existing commitment by the rich world to provide $100bn a year in ‘climate finance’ to poor countries to help their adaptation to global warming and help develop low-carbon energy systems. So far, only a fraction of the necessary funds has been pledged and extracting the full amount may prove difficult.

So, an agreement will certainly be reached, but this means very little unless it actually achieves something. A negative aspect of setting targets is that people focus on meeting them without considering the bigger picture. To give a very topical example, a story in the Times reports how a large donation was made by the UK government to the Global Fund without proper consideration, simply to meet the target of 0.7% of GDP going on overseas aid (Controversial aid group got £500m gift so PM hit target).

The other important point is that the best technology available to meet the emissions reduction pledges is nuclear fission: low-carbon, reliable and safe. But, unaccountably, the EU agreed some time ago to bring in binding targets for use of renewable energy, making the targets both harder and more expensive to meet.

There are still plenty of enthusiasts for renewable energy, not least researcher Malte Jansen of the Frauenhofer Institute (UK is perfectly placed to use 100 per cent renewable power). Paying little attention to the amount of backup needed in such a situation, he is also quoted as saying “We had the discussion about the costs associated with introducing renewables two years ago in Germany. What people often don’t realise is that although you have an increased cost to bring renewables online, the wholesale price of electricity declines as a result, virtually offsetting that initial increase: changing the energy economy is not easy, but it gets cheaper the faster you do it. Now in Germany, even though renewables are still being added, the price of electricity has already stabilised.”

This suggests a degree of naivety, at least among some academics, over the true costs of energy supply, taking no account of distribution, the challenges of stabilising the grid and the need to keep other generating sources on standby. Maybe we will see a breakthrough in massive-scale energy storage, but there is nothing on the horizon which remotely fulfils the need. Maybe the interim answer would be home battery packs as being produced by Elon Musk’s empire, but the capacity of lithium ion battery technology (currently the best we have) to do even this is highly doubtful.

Overall, the feeling that something must be done means that too little attention is paid to doing the right things. In some cases, it may be better to do nothing while looking for better answers. Symptomatic of this need to do something is the search for new ways to get the message across to get public commitment. We know that most people are not interested in scientific details, but there is an unfortunate tendency to put forward an absolutely rigid front of unquestioning belief in some of the more extreme scenarios associated with increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Even legitimate questioning tends to be dismissed or slapped down.

We can expect to see an increasing number of stories of impending apocalypse as the year goes on, with reporting of any news seemingly at odds with this narrative being given less attention (for example, Arctic sea ice rebounded – but the melting hasn’t stopped). These are sometimes reinforced through the Arts, such as The Shriker: global warming, eco-fairytales and science on the stage.

The lead character is played by Maxine Peake, quoted as saying “with our world in constant environmental crisis and our survival options becoming increasingly narrow, Caryl’s play to me seems like the Earth’s last cry for help. It’s a fairytale turned nightmare, a warning and a premonition to our future survival on a planet that we have mercilessly exploited and abused.”

This is not just about the conviction that a certain interpretation of global climate changes is right, it’s also deeply political. The cast read Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate in preparation for putting on the play, and the article quotes Klein’s interpretation of the lack of action taken when global warming arguments were first made: “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

This sort of attitude is not uncommon among the intellectual elite, and it has the unfortunate consequence of driving the ‘must do something’ agenda. How much better it would be to take a step back from such an activist stance and take a cool look at how emissions might be reduced in the most cost-effective way. This may not appeal to those trying to occupy the moral high ground at the moment, but it would be better for countries both rich and poor. And, in the event that the more extreme climate change scenarios do not come to pass, there would be less cause to worry over wasted expenditure and lost opportunities.

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The Scientific Alliance is pleased to publish and analyis of the intermittency of UK wind energy generation for 2013-14 by Derek Partington