Paris not the final throw of climate dice
AS THE climate negotiations draw to a close in a shell-shocked Paris, the international community have hung each country’s pledges on the climate Christmas tree. We’re left to do the maths, to see where it gets us. The answer will probably be that the pledges combine to limit warming to 2.7°C-3.7°C over pre-industrial times, and that the ultimate deal isn’t legally binding in any strong sense of the word.
For many in the climate movement, Paris was the “last tango”, the implication being that if we don’t get it done in Paris, that’s it.
We know that science tells us to keep warming to below 2°C if we want to be able to adapt to the change. Thus, given what Paris will give us, is this the “last tango” before the avaricious among us run off to ensure that when the earth burns in 50 years, they burn in a Ferrari?
The answer depends on our view of where the answer needs to come from. When the climate debate started more than 20 years ago, the possible solutions were expensive and often unproven. Renewable energy was one such solution. Climate activists asked us to change our way of life and pointed out that any economic cost would be low compared to partial or total extinction of our species. But it was never going to happen spontaneously, from the ground up — it wasn’t proven enough or cheap enough. Any answer was going to have to come from governments in a top-down, command-and-control fashion.
The drive to create a legally binding international instrument gave us the Kyoto Protocol, with its first commitment period that spawned the very successful clean development mechanism. At one point, the European Union emissions trading scheme drove carbon cost to almost €30 per tonne. But top-down mechanisms have largely collapsed as politicians prioritised medium and short-term objectives after the 2008 global economic crisis.
Within the paradigm that only top-down, co-ordinated international action can solve the climate problem, Paris is indeed the last tango and we can pretty much all go home and batten down the hatches. But the belief that this is the only way has not kept track with technological advances. Twenty years is a long time in the world of technology.
In SA, wind and solar photovoltaic power are now up to 40% cheaper than new coal power — and it excludes the effects of coal on climate, water and health. Wind and solar plants can be commissioned within 18 months after starting construction, are modular and are all financed from private funds — with the government only paying for the electricity. A solar rooftop revolution is under way, with up to 5GW of installed capacity predicted by 2025.
Renewable energy has become mature and is now happening almost spontaneously, bottom up, in many parts of the world. Similar developments are taking place in electric vehicles, energy storage and several other fields.
Governments balance so many divergent and vested interests that we shouldn’t have expected them to lead us towards rapidly transforming the very fabric of our lives. They have done okay and given us a ceiling that may be outside scientific bounds, but is not completely open-ended.
They have created a framework within which we can start to improve on what they have promised and thus claw the predicted warming back down towards 2°C. Given how conservative the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” generally are in terms of committing countries to measurable pledges, it should be easy to do.
The future of climate protection lies in a combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives. The international climate community will improve on the collective pledges over time, but the focus of civil society should now shift towards the local implementation of readily available interventions: energy efficiency, renewable energy, improved domestic policies and behaviour change.
• Van den Berg is CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association