Wednesday, April 13, 2016



There is no doubt that the December climate conference in Paris was a diplomatic success, at least from the perspective of anyone concerned about the risks of excessive greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change.  That includes all the world’s major governments and national academies of science, as well as environmental groups.  It was however just the start, the first of many necessary but not sufficient steps to achieve the goals of reconciling lifestyles and a sustainable planet. We can already anticipate some very difficult questions that will need to be addressed in the coming months and years. The UK and EU have particular perspectives, but many of the challenges will be universal.
Legally binding and ambitious but dependent on national efforts.
Did the Paris climate conference (COP21) achieve a meaningful legally binding agreement across the international community? Certainly the EU felt able to assert  that “195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal”.  And the aim to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C, or at least to have a goal well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, in order  to significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change, is commendably ambitious.  It is also close to the boundaries of credibility, given that we are already at 1.5°C, with some further increase “baked in” even if human emissions of GHG were to cease tomorrow.
It also recognised the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science.  In practical terms the ambitions of Paris imply movement, over a relatively short timescale, to a zero net emissions economy, or “net zero”.
The agreement fell short of the legally binding national targets for which many had hoped. In terms of political realities this was clearly a step too far at this stage, so responsibility for achievement is decentralised to national climate action plans along the lines of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted prior to Paris. The provisions for transparency, reporting and review are however likely to put considerable pressure on national governments to live up to the spirit of the agreement.
The implications of zero net carbon
The technical implications of zero net carbon is that there will be a substantial need for technologies that are negative emission in that they result in actual net extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. Currently there are two possible means to do this. The first is use of biomass in power stations, combined with carbon capture. This is in essence attempting to enhance the natural carbon cycle so that it leads to net absorption of CO2.  UK progress with this has not been helped by the cancellation of CCS funding.
The second is the even more ambitious sequestration of CO2 directly from the atmosphere.  This is theoretically possible but no cost effective technology currently exists to do it. Myles Allen, with a logic independent of the chosen target approach used in Paris, also arrives at the conclusion that the development of this technology is a priority. “Massive carbon capture investment needed to slow global warming.” Others will see it as a vital backstop against policy failure or against the possibility that climate and other science has seriously underestimated the impacts of even 1.5°C or 2°C warming.
Big Policy Issues for the EU and UK
The UK is already committed to an 80% reduction by 2050. Speaking in the Commons, energy minister Andrea Leadsom said government believed it was necessary "to take the step of enshrining the Paris commitment to net zero emissions in UK law". However in terms of delivery the UK is struggling to build the first new nuclear plant, and the government has recently cancelled CCS funding – a technology of fundamental importance in relation to meeting its 2050 targets at a reasonable cost, let alone “net zero”.
Meanwhile the EU is still struggling to make sense of its emissions trading scheme, the EU ETS.  This, the EU’s flagship policy, has been an administrative and technical success, but a conspicuous failure in terms of its ability to produce a carbon price that incentivises long term low carbon investment. However the EU is widely seen as sticking doggedly to “pure” market solutions when what may now be implied by Paris is a much heavier component of direct policy intervention and regulation.
Unsurprisingly this is one of many areas where there will be competing claims for EU and national policies and priorities. Post Paris, one question is whether future “national” INDCs relate to Europe or the nation states. And that is before we even begin to consider the repercussions of the UK referendum.

The BIEE run five seminars each year on different aspects of energy and climate policy.  The next one takes place on 20th April, with Adrian Gault, Chief Economist at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), talking about post Paris implications for the UK.  The seminar is open to all, but registration in advance is required, and closes on Friday 15th April.  Details may be found on the BIEE site at:

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