Climate News of the Week Roundup: Germany Founds a “Renewables Club”, But What Will It Deliver?

This week’s roundup features the founding of a “Renewables Club” in Berlin, traditional utilities turning into dinosaurs, different interpretations of Chinese motivations, rapid renewables scale-up in China and Japan, bad news for fracking from Germany and the US, a study on cost-optimal expansion of renewables in Germany with results that may surprise some, the EU looking ahead to a lost decade in terms of emission reductions, renewables and efficiency crowdfunding in Germany, and more.

A number of people have argued that the UN climate process, with its tendency to stick to the lowest common denominator, should be complemented by parallel initiatives of countries who are actually serious about doing something. This is exactly the claim of the new “Renewables Club” just inaugurated in Berlin at the initiative of the German environment minister. The founding members are China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Morocco, South Africa, Tonga, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and IRENA. What they aim to do is not quite clear though, the communiqué speaks of “sending political messages” and “raising awareness”.

The World Resources Institute in a recent paper had some ideas on what characteristics such clubs should have to actually provide some added value: Notably, an ambitious vision, limiting membership to countries that are actually in line with that vision, providing significant real benefits to members and a pathway to start quickly and expand over time.

One concrete bit that was new to me, according to a German article China noted in Berlin that it has targets of getting to 200 GW of wind and 100 GW of solar PV by 2020. The whole EU currently has 100 GW of wind.

This week also saw more head-scratching on what China is up to. Walter Russell Mead argues that the Chinese government has zero interest in climate change and is merely driven by concerns about local air pollution and the rising energy import bill. I personally don’t care why they clean up their act as long as they do it. Climate protection vs development is anyway a false dichotomy in my humble opinion. Efficiency anyway pays for itself and renewables will soon be competitive with fossils, so it’s actually win-win, not win-lose.

At the macro level, that is, at the micro level there will of course be losers as well as winners. Reuters this week had an analysis on how renewables are turning utilities into “dinosaurs of the energy world”, as decentralised renewables are turning consumers into producers and thus chip away at the utilities’ centralised production model. And people wonder why the energy transition has opponents. As also noted by Klaus Töpfer in a German interview he gave to Der Tagesspiegel: “In the energy supply system before the Energiewende the large corporations gained all the profit, which is now being distributed among many more investors.” Unfortunately, “The lobby for the future has a harder task than the lobby for the present”, path dependencies and all that.

In a similar vein, Xu Nan gives an interesting account of the back and forth on climate policy within the Chinese government. Lots of discussion on how fast to go and what instruments to use.

Contrary to what Mead argues, according to a brief by the World Resources Institute, climate change is in fact a motivation for the Chinese government, given that the country is highly vulnerable to its impacts. Another motivation is capturing the prospective trillion dollar clean energy market.

Justin Guay argues that China’s expansion of coal use is in fact already stalling. He notes that new investments were less than half of what they were in 2005 and in parallel to adding new capacity China also closed down 80GW of old capacity in the last decade, with another 20GW planned to be phased out. And investments in renewables have exceeded investments in coal since 2009 by an ever growing margin.

Renewables are also going strong in Japan. According to reports the country installed 1.5GW of solar PV in the first quarter of 2013, up from 0.4GW in the first quarter of 2012. By comparison, former class leader Germany is now installing a mere 300-400 MW per month. China aims to install 10GW this year, which would make it the largest market by installed capacity, but Japan seems set to be the largest market by revenue.

This week saw two new studies related to Germany’s energy turnaround. The first one was by Agora Energiewende on cost-optimal expansion of renewables in Germany (German summary article here). It concluded that in terms of cost it makes no difference whether solar and wind installations are built close to consumers or where production is best. A more decentralised approach means more installations, but their production balances each other out better than if there are fewer high-yield installations. However, offshore wind makes the whole system much more costly. Compared to the government’s current plans 2.5 billion could be saved per year by de-emphasising offshore in favour of onshore.

The second was a study by the German government’s advisory council on the environment (SRU) on the possible contribution of fracking to the energy turnaround. They conclude that fracking is dispensable as the amounts of shale gas that could be extracted in an economically viable manner taking into account suitable environmental safeguards are too small to influence gas prices (German press release here, English summary blog post here). But the SRU could also have noted that from the climate perspective opening up ever more fossil fuel reserves is not really a good idea anyway.

Even the shale gas boom in the US is probably not all it’s cracked up to be. EurActiv ran an article featuring geoscientist David Hughes who argues that the “cheap price bubble … will burst within two-to-four years” as fracking fields are getting exhausted much more quickly than conventional ones (see also previous post).

The European Environment Agency revised its figures for 2011 emissions downward. According to the new figures, EU emissions in 2011 were 18.4% below 1990 levels – so the EU has basically already achieved its target of reducing emissions by 20% by 2020. Especially when taking into account offsets surrendered in the EU emission trading scheme. On that basis, EU emissions were even 21.4% below 1990 levels, Sandbag argues. So unless the target is strengthened, which doesn’t seem likely right now, the supposed climate frontrunner EU is going to spend nearly a decade basically doing nothing.

Another must-read by John Ashton, this seems to be turning into a regular feature of my weekly roundups. This time it was an extremely engaging (did you know what The Life of Brian has to do with climate change?) call to arms to young people: “You will get the inheritance that my generation passes on to you. Your problem right now is that my generation is not trying to build a future… You can wait, and get the inheritance you get. Remember, you can’t send it back to us if you don’t like it. Or you can claim it now, by engaging, building, joining to renew.”

Internationally, the EU published a proposal for the key element of the roadmap to the new climate agreement that is supposed to be agreed in 2015, namely, how to come up with adequate commitments. They suggest that countries should outline draft commitments in 2014 already, to give enough time for peer review by other countries and subsequent improvement. The US had previously proposed mid-2015 as target date for “draft contributions”, and probably with a rather weak international review in mind.

Interesting point of view on climate science by Tesla’s CEO, who suggested to flip the burden of proof onto those who deny greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming. “If you were to ask any scientist, ‘Are you absolutely certain’ about anything, they would say, ‘Well, no. There’s a .001 percent chance it could be different.’ So it’s better to actually say, ‘Look, how certain are you that it is not catastrophic?’ And then you’ll get the correct answer.”

As Donald Brown argued a while back, “Without doubt those telling others that there is no danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.”

Deutsch:

Ich habe mich gefragt, warum es in Deutschland keine Erneuerbaren-Crowdinvestment-Plattform wie Mosaic gibt. Dann hat mich dieser Artikel aufgeklärt, dass es die sehr wohl gibt, und demnächst auch eine für Energieeffizienz, und Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker und Uwe Leprich geben ihre guten Namen dazu. Wert, im Auge zu behalten.

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