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End of year consensus

The COP21 jamboree in Paris is done and dusted. But, not surprisingly, the outcome has in practice changed little and the news media have moved on to other things. The only ‘legally-binding’ aspect of the agreement is that countries are obliged to put forward their planned emissions reduction targets to the IPCC every five years. They don’t have to set ambitious goals (although the hope is that the competitive aspect of this process will put pressure on them to do so) and neither do they have to achieve those they set.

Even continuing to be a part of the process isn’t obligatory, since Article 28 of the agreement provides a get-put: “1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary. 2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal. 3. Any Party that withdraws from the Convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from this Agreement.”

However, given the lack of any real penalty for non-compliance with targets, there is little incentive for any signatory to leave; for the foreseeable future, the resulting negative publicity is unlikely to be balanced by any real gains. Instead, countries can provide excuses for failure and promise to do better next time, allowing the process to continue without any significant progress.

Despite steadily rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air, ambitions have become greater rather than being tailored to reality. It had been accepted for some time that a 2° ceiling on average temperature rise is unachievable without the advent of effectively negative emissions later in the century. Nevertheless, the aspiration is now for a 1.5° maximum rise, largely at the behest of small island nations, on whose purported disappearance global sea level rises appear to have little or no influence (since the islands in question are coral atolls).

But the UK, as always, is taking this cloud-cuckoo view of likely outcomes seriously. The Committee on Climate Change, which sets five-yearly ‘carbon budgets’ is giving the message that Britain facing steeper emissions cuts. According to the report  “The committee advised ministers last month that more than half of new cars would have to be powered by electricity within 15 years and, by the 2030s, almost all electricity would have to come from low-carbon sources, such as wind, solar, biomass and nuclear.”

Not much has been made of this so far, but it seems to me inconceivable that any country could have a workable network of charging points or battery-swapping stations that could effectively service the million or more electric cars this statement suggests (that’s a conservative estimate; new car sales in 2014 reached nearly 2.4 million). Unless, that is, the CCC is actually talking about plug-in hybrids, a rather different beast.

In any case, the Committee also rightly points out the need for electricity to come from low-carbon sources by the 2030s – let’s say in 25 years’ time, to be generous – if electric cars are to have any impact on emissions. Ignoring for now the fact that biomass (imported wood pellets, by and large) is classified as low carbon, despite the emissions (higher than for coal) only being recaptured over a period of decades, it is becoming increasingly obvious to those who care to look that solar and wind energy do little to reduce emissions once they form more than a fairly modest proportion of the generating mix.

This leads to what I suggest is probably a growing consensus on the need to develop new technology and invest in nuclear. However, unless much greater emphasis is put on these areas soon, there is little chance of a real move away from fossil fuels within the timescale the CCC is discussing.

Many in the climate change community are still bullish about this happening, though. For example, we read Paris Agreement: Analysts predict long-term boost to EU carbon market, Paris Paves Way for Global Carbon Price, Ex-Australia PM Says and Has the Paris Agreement moved markets already? However, in practice, the announcement that this is the beginning of the end of fossil fuels has, just like Mark Twain’s death, been greatly exaggerated.

The EU carbon price actually fell 6% (to just over €8) during COP21, and it is fanciful to expect this to rise significantly any time soon without some major changes to such a deeply flawed system. And if the EU can’t get this right, it is unlikely that the scheme due to kick off in China the year after next will be any more successful. In another pointer to expectations, energy company share prices have been affected much more by the major drop in oil prices than anything which happened in Paris and have actually picked up slightly in recent days.

A consensus on more research and more nuclear should be good news for all shades of opinion on climate change. Although it’s a long haul, this approach actually has some real potential to drive a move away from fossil fuels, unlike simply continuing to build more wind farms and install more solar panels. And for those who are not sold on the more alarmist predictions of the impact of global warming (or the extent to which humans contribute to it) anything which helps provide as secure and affordable future energy supply must be welcomed.

The other part of the growing consensus relates to adaptation. Whether or not sea level rises at one, two or three millimetres a year, it has been rising steadily for a century or more and the vulnerability of some low-lying countries and many coastal areas will increase. Flooding will happen in certain areas from time to time; the frequency is less important than the need to protect them. Hurricanes and typhoons will sweep the same areas and communities have to be made resilient.

After Paris, those expecting more concerted action are almost certain to be disappointed. Similarly, those who hope governments will roll back their commitments shouldn’t hold their breath. However, in the next few years we may well see the balance shift further towards nuclear, R&D on new energy generation and storage systems and protection of vulnerable communities. Politicians will continue to balance their public commitment to fighting climate change against the need for secure energy supplies. Pragmatism will be the order of the day.