06.10.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Paris Agreement reflects countries’ priorities, report shows

This flooding in Marblehead was caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Marblehead is situated on the east coast of the USA, halfway between New York City and the Canadian border. © The Birkes/Wikipedia CC by 2.0

With the European Parliament having approved ratification of the Paris Agreement on 4 October 2016 and India doing likewise this week, the climate deal is set to come into effect before the next climate summit (COP22) gets under way in November.

 The Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015 at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21). For the accord to come into effect, it must be ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting for at least 55% of greenhouse gas emissions. Counting India, 62 countries responsible for about 52% of global emissions have deposited their instrument of ratification, so far. With the added weight of the European Union, the 55% threshold will be crossed.

The pace of ratification has gained momentum since 3 September 2016, when China and the USA announced on the eve of the G20 summit in Huangzou their intention to ratify the agreement. This brought the number of states having ratified, accepted or approved the agreement to 26, corresponding to 39% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The other 24 countries together account for just over 1% of global emissions.

The UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 was published in November 2015, just two months after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. One of these goals is devoted to climate change. The UNESCO Science Report reveals a growing focus on climate change and alternative energy technologies in science policy.

European environment industry has flourished, despite the crisis

According to the UNESCO Science Report, the European Union should meet its target of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 over 1990 levels, thanks, in part, to the economic downturn since 2008 but, above all, to the bloc’s conviction ‘that environmentally sustainable (green) growth will increase its competitiveness’. The report cites a 2015 study by the European Environment Agency which reveals that ‘the environment industry has been ‘one of the few European economic sectors to flourish in terms of revenue, trade and jobs, despite the 2008 financial crisis’.

Between 2007 and 2013, at least one-quarter of the projects funded under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development related to sustainable development in 21 out of 28 countries. The proportion was only lower than 20% in three countries: Cyprus, Malta and the UK.

Many of the societal challenges covered by the eighth framework programme, Horizon 2020, ‘relate to green growth areas, such as sustainable agriculture and forestry, climate action, green transportation or resource efficiency’, observes the report.

Growth in green technologies in India

India is also investing more in green growth. It ‘is the fifth-largest wind energy producer in the world, with considerable research and manufacturing capabilities’, according to the UNESCO Science Report. Since 2010, the number of patents granted to Indian inventors for green technologies has risen from 9 to 46 (2012). One bottleneck to the wider diffusion of green technologies is the fact that just 8 out of 29 states have explicit green policies.

The Modi administration is targeting an investment of US$100 billion in tax-free ‘green’ bonds to help reach its goal of installing 100 gigawatts of solar energy across India by 2022. It has also announced plans to train a 50,000 strong ‘solar army’ to staff new solar projects.

Climate change a top priority for two biggest carbon emitters

Diversifying the energy mix and improving energy efficiency have become key priorities for China and the USA. In the USA, the ‘Climate Action Plan (2013) articulates both a domestic and international policy agenda aimed at quickly and effectively reducing greenhouse emissions’.

At the domestic level, ‘climate change has been the Obama administration’s top priority for science policy’, states the report. ‘One key strategy has been to invest in alternative energy technologies…. This includes increasing the availability of funding for basic research in the field of energy at universities, loans for businesses and other incentives for R&D’.

‘In the aftermath of the financial crisis [of 2008], the White House effectively leveraged the ensuing economic crisis as an opportunity to invest in science, research and development’, analyses the report, before going on to say that, ‘since then, however, political difficulties have forced the president to scale down his ambitions’.

The government has elected to use the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate domestic greenhouse gas emissions, in the face of Congressional opposition. ‘The Environmental Protection Agency wishes to reduce power plants’ carbon emissions by 30% across the USA’, explains the report. ‘Some states are also supporting this policy, since each state is free to fix its own emission targets’.

The government is also developing partnerships with industry. In July 2015, 13 large US companies committed to investing US$ 140 billion in low carbon emission projects, as part of the American Business Act on Climate Pledge announced by the White House.

The report observes that, ‘consistent with the president’s overarching priorities, the most important goal of science diplomacy at the moment and in the near future will be to address climate change’. In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, the USA ‘provided developing countries with technical assistance in preparing their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’.

The Obama administration has entered into a variety of bilateral and multilateral agreements on climate change. During the president’s visit to China in November 2014, ‘the USA agreed to reduce its own carbon emissions by 26–28% over 2005 levels by 2025’, relates the report. ‘In parallel, the US and Chinese presidents issued a Joint Announcement on Climate’.

The details of the agreement had been ironed out by the USA–China Clean Energy Research Center. This virtual centre was established in November 2009 by President Obama and President Hu Jintao and endowed with US$ 150 million. The joint workplan foresees public–private partnerships in the areas of clean coal technology, clean vehicles, energy efficiency and energy and water’.

Emissions and rising temperatures could derail China’s path to modernity

The report recalls that ‘China, along with India and other emerging economies, has long insisted on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in dealing with global climate change. However, for the world’s largest carbon emitter, ‘greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures could derail China’s path to modernity’. The report argues that, ‘by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up the environment, the political leadership is also likely to gain further support from the emerging middle class’.

On 19 September 2014, China’s State Council unveiled an Energy Development Strategy Action Plan (2014−2020) which promised more efficient, self-sufficient, green and innovative energy production and consumption. The plan’s long list of targets includes reducing carbon emissions by 40–50% over 2005 levels, increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix from 9.8% (2013) to 15% and lowering the share of coal in the national energy mix from 66% to less than 62%.

As China burned 3.6 billion tons of coal in 2013, capping total coal consumption at roughly 4.2 billion tons, as outlined in the Action Plan, means that China can only increase its coal usage by roughly 17% by 2020 from 2013 levels. The cap also means that annual coal consumption may only grow by 3.5% or less between 2013 and 2020. To compensate for the drop in coal consumption, China plans to expand its nuclear energy production with the construction of new nuclear power stations and the development of hydropower, wind and solar energy’.

‘There are several reasons for China’s emphasis on diversifying its energy mix’, explains the report. ‘In addition to environmental considerations, China is eager to reduce its reliance on foreign energy suppliers. Currently, China receives nearly 60% of its oil and over 30% of its natural gas from foreign sources. For domestic production to make up 85% of total energy consumption by 2020, China will need to increase its production of natural gas, shale gas and coalbed methane’.

The report observes that China’s new energy action plan ‘also calls for deepwater drilling, as well as for the development of oil and gas extraction in its neighbouring seas by undertaking both independent extraction projects and co-operative projects with foreign countries’.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (published in 2015); see the chapters on China, the European Union, India and the USA.

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