Climate News of the Week Roundup: Public Transport Produces Geniuses, and Saves Loads of Money and Emissions

This week’s roundup features studies highlighting the benefits of public transport, Nicholas Stern arguing that going low-carbon is a “golden opportunity” for the European economy, a must-read evaluation of the EU emission trading system, the USA and China looking at new joint emission reduction initiatives, insights into renewables’ scale-up in the US, Germany, Italy, India and Brazil, an argument that the case for renewables in South Africa needs to be made primarily on developmental, not environmental grounds, Christian Roselund debunking the Breakthrough Institute, a study claiming that coal use is cutting average life expectancy in Northern China by 5.5 years, and more.

Two nice pieces on public transport this week. Sarah Laskow reports on research showing how productivity and innovation in urban areas grow at roughly the same rate as population, largely because the greater density of people living in a city increases the opportunities for personal interactions and exposure to different ideas. But only if the city has good public transport, all these good things only happen if people can actually get around.

And the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report on the benefits of efficient urban transport systems. While unfortunately most environmental transport policy is fixated on vehicle technology, the best thing to do is to minimise the need for transport in the first place, e.g. by building cities of short distances instead of urban sprawls. The second-best way is to shift transport from cars to public transport, cycling and walking. Improving vehicle technology is only third on the list. The new IEA report says taking the “avoid, shift, improve” approach to urban transport could save up to USD 70 trillion globally by 2050.

Nicholas Stern argues that going low-carbon is a “golden opportunity” for the European economy. “With interest rates at low levels, relatively high unemployment and liquidity in the private sector, governments can unleash economic activity through sound and credible policies that encourage investment in its energy infrastructure. (…) The volatility in the price of fossil fuels that have to be imported from outside Europe have provided serious obstacles to growth, creating uncertainty and added costs for households, governments and businesses. (…) Low-carbon growth is the only credible medium-term growth strategy. And a time of depressed economies is exactly the time to invest in the growth story of the future. (…) Governments (…) should start by setting a goal of decarbonising the European power sector by the 2030s.”

Frédéric Branger, Oskar Lecuyer and Philippe Quirion have produced a must-read evaluation of the EU emission trading system on only 12 pages of text. They find that the EU-ETS brought small but real abatements. Competitiveness losses and carbon leakage do not seem to have occurred. Distributional effects have indeed been unfair and fraud has been important. Finally, the scheme does not justify abandoning other climate policies. Some of these problems could have been avoided and can still be corrected by rethinking flexibility mechanisms and by adding some control over the carbon price through price floors and ceilings. I particularly like how they nail the Commission’s “convert zeal” on emission trading, which it was at first opposed to.

My only quibble: While noting that carbon pricing is not a panacea, they repeat the often-made claim that additional policies aimed at reducing emissions in the same sectors will not induce any emissions reductions and only serve to depress carbon prices. However, this only applies if the additional policies are not taken into account when the cap is set. If the cap is set accounting for the projected impact of the other policies, the problem vanishes. And while I haven’t looked at to what extent that’s true, the Commission does claim that the EU’s renewables and efficiency targets were taken into account when setting the ETS caps.

The USA and China are looking at five new joint emission reduction initiatives, aiming to address heavy-duty and other vehicles; carbon capture, storage and use; energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport; improving greenhouse gas data collection and management; and promoting smart grids.

CleanTechnica drills down into some of the details of the German renewable energy transition. They note that it’s not a “big government programme”. In fact, it was mainly driven by some pioneering regions, counties, and municipalities, and large parts of the country actually still have to get with the programme. “So, what can be accomplished within a decade if local initiatives get the opportunity to shape their energy future without obstruction?” In some cases, renewables generating well more than 200% of their electricity consumption.

And here’s another article showing how German wholesale electricity prices have gone down despite the nuclear phaseout, contrary to what many predicted. The price per kWh has now fallen below 4 eurocents. The article is in German but has a nice graph.

Counter-intuitively, one of the US’s renewable energy power houses is arch-conservative Texas. Terrence Henry had an interesting conversation with book authors Kate Galbraith and Asher Price on how exactly that come about. Turns out one the people pushing things along was George W. Bush, of all people. Though that probably wouldn’t happen nowadays. The conversation notes that solar will probably have a much harder time  politically in Texas than wind did.

And Lisa Hymas reports that a Republican staffer at the House has written a fervent call for conservative action on climate change, but is too afraid of inner-party reprisal to reveal his name.

The US has joined China, Germany and Italy as one of the nations that has more than 10GW of solar PV installed, and there’s no slowdown in sight. They have some catching up to do though, in particular in terms of share of electricity generation.

According to reports, over the first six months of 2013, solar PV supplied 6.9% of Italy’s electricity demand, with 10.7 TWh generated, a 15% increase over the first six months of 2012. Adding hydro, geothermal and wind, Italy got 32% of electricity demand from renewables, and renewables actually met the entire electricity demand of the country for two hours on 16 June.

Deutsche Bank projects that the global solar PV market could jump to 45GW in 2014, after 38-40GW this year.

Emily Tyler argues that a renewable energy transition will only take off in South Africa if it can be framed as a development issue rather than as an environmental issue. “Until the development and economic cases are convincingly made, it appears unlikely that South African political leaders will entertain, let alone promote, such an ambitious plan as that of the German Energiewende.” The same probably holds for most other developing countries.

And I’d say renewables should indeed fit the bill for most countries. A new HSBC report claims that wind is now at parity with new coal in India, and that solar is to join by 2018. And they have the added advantage of not further increasing water stress as thermal power generation does, which is the biggest industrial water consumer in India.

Following on from last week’s roundup, Hugh Saddler has another look at how renewables have gained an electricity share of 15% in Australia while demand and emissions have gone down.

Steve Sawyer discusses the improving outlook for wind power in Brazil. Of the 2.5GW installed at the end of 2012, 1GW was installed in 2012 alone.

The IEA recently predicted that globally installed wind power capacity was set to double and solar to triple in six years and that  renewables were set to surpass gas in global electricity generation by 2016. Chris Nelder digs down into some of the report’s details.

Christian Roselund takes on the “straw men, faulty logic and ignorance” in a recent Breakthrough Institute piece on solar, which had questioned the speed of solar technology cost reductions. For example, the BI piece argues that much of the cost reduction has been due to Chinese dumping. Which has only been a factor in recent years, while costs have in fact come down rapidly for decades, from $76.67/watt in 1977 to less than one dollar nowadays.

Another reminder that climate change is not the only problem caused by fossil fuel use. A study published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that coal pollution in China is cutting the average life expectancy of half a billion people by 5.5 years.

Off-Topic:

As I was in San Francisco recently, I’m a total sucker for this incredible time-lapse of fog flowing over San Francisco for 2 years.

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