Climate change pact creates impetus for renewable energy push
The historic agreement by nearly 200 countries on climate change was the biggest step ever taken on a world stage to curb global warming. It’s being called “the deal to save the world,” an “opportunity to showcase American ingenuity,” and more. As Vice President Joe Biden might put it, this is a BFD.
Many in the environmental community, including 350.org founder Bill McKibben, say that the agreement falls short. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, McKibben argues that the pact is 20 years too late, saying it’s “like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995.” If all of the countries keep their promises as specified in the agreement hammered out at the United National Climate Change Conference in Paris, “the planet would warm by an estimated 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels,” he adds. “And that is way, way too much.”
The pact may not be enough, and it may be only a blueprint, but it’s the only time the world has ever agreed on such a blueprint. To paraphrase a certain former disgraced secretary of defense, you work with the the climate agreement you have, not the one you’d like to have.
At the Paris COP21 meeting, 195 countries promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and set a temperature-based cap. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged that the United States would spend $800 million to help poor countries develop the needed infrastructure for renewable sources of energy — a figure that likely is way more than the Obama administration will ever get from a Republican Congress. After all, Sen. James “Snowball” Inhofe (R, Stone Age) still chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Senate leadership has already been outspoken in its positions that the United States is not legally bound to any agreement setting emissions targets or any financial commitment to it without approval by Congress,” Inhofe said after the accord was announced, according to a story from The Hill.
If Inhofe and his ilk block official U.S. government efforts, where will the money come from, and what will it do? The plan from 20 of the world’s wealthiest countries is called “Mission Innovation.” But that plan includes major investment from 28 of the world’s richest people: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, among others from countries around the globe. These billionaire backers have a private project of their own, called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which was announced one day before the climate talks started.
According to the Breakthrough Energy Coalition website, the group has developed a five-point plan on investing early, broadly, boldly, wisely, and together. “Together we will focus on early-stage companies that have the potential of an energy future that produces near-zero carbon emissions and provides everyone with affordable, reliable energy.
“The world needs widely available energy that is reliable, affordable, and does not produce carbon,” the website states. “The only way to accomplish that goal is by developing new tools to power the world. That innovation will result from a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline linked to truly patient, flexible investments committed to developing the technologies that will create a new energy mix.”
The investors are pledging $7 billion to invest in these new energy tools, according to a story from NPR. Since they are collectively worth about $350 billion, they can afford it. Gates is pledging $1 billion on his own. These are not the kinds of investments that will produce quick or easy returns. But it’s past time for such big-dollar investments.
So where will this $7 billion go? Which technologies, which companies, which sources of energy, which countries?
Most energy experts, such as those in the Union of Concerned Scientists, agree that the best approaches involve the best renewable energy sources: solar energy, wind energy, hydroelectricity, geothermal energy, biomass energy, and ocean, or hydrokinetic, energy. Nuclear energy is part of the mix, with obvious pros and cons. So far, the greatest growth has come in biomass, solar, and wind power. A new report from the International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2015,” predicts that “renewables will overtake coal as the largest source of electricity generation by the 2030s.”
Solar: The use of solar power has increased so much that energy usage measurement had to change from megawatts to gigawatts in just five years. While Germany is way ahead of every other country in the amount of installed photovoltaic (PV) solar energy capacity, at 35.5 gigawatts of power, China is catching up. It now leads the world in adding PV capacity.
Wind: A new report from the European Commission concludes that wind power is the renewable energy technology with the largest and most successful deployment over the last 20 years. Wind energy throughout Europe grew from three gigawatts two decades ago to 370 gigawatts of global cumulative capacity by the end of 2014, and wind provided eight percent of Europe’s energy in 2014. Yet European Union countries still imported 53 percent of total energy.
Biomass: Biomass, or the use of renewable crops, crop and forest residue, or waste to create energy, is considered the largest form of renewable energy in Europe, according to the Swedish electricity company Vattenfall. Its website describes a dramatic increase in the use of biomass, predicting that more than half of all renewable energy will come from biomass sources by 2020, mostly for heat and transportation. There are trade-offs, such as the threat of reducing the diversity of plant and animal life to grow large amounts of crops for fuel.
Those examples don’t even address the infrastructure that is being built in Africa and Asia — or the vast infrastructure that is still needed. India, for example, needs $2.8 trillion in energy investment, as its power structure needs to quadruple by 2040 to keep up with the needs of the population. Currently, 20 percent of the Indian population, or 240 million people, lack access to electricity. So there are a lot of clean energy investment opportunities for the world’s billionaires. Time to start funneling money to those investments right away.
Even though McKibben may be disappointed that the final COP21 accord fell short, he vows to keep fighting. “What this means is that we need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action,” he writes in his NYT piece. “We’ll be blocking pipelines, fighting new coal mines, urging divestment from fossil fuels — trying, in short, to keep weakening the mighty industry that still stands in the way of real progress. With every major world leader now on the record saying they at least theoretically support bold action to make the transition to renewable energy, we’ve got a new tool to work with.”
Many environmental groups give a complete breakdown of the Paris agreement. Here’s a clear explanation from the National Resources Defense Council.
But just remember: When it comes to saving the Earth, there’s