December 2, 2014
By Jason Anderson, Head of European Climate and Energy Policy at WWF European Policy Office
I arrived in Lima Saturday morning for the COP20 UN climate negotiations and went directly to my hotel for a 12-hour WWF preparatory meeting, to get into the spirit of the event. One of the key issues we discussed is how we come to terms with the gap between the contribution to emissions reductions needed from different countries compared to their current likely contributions – which are much too low both individually and in aggregate.
In the case of the EU, its 2030 target is ‘at least 40%’ below 1990 levels, but according to EcoEquity’s online equity calculator, the EU’s cuts should be 80% at a bare minimum, counting both domestic and supported international action together: far, far beyond what is being proposed.
Staring at the ceiling seeking inspiration for how to close that huge gap, I noticed that all of the spot lighting was LEDs – the latest 5 watt lights that replace 35-50 watt halogens. That means that every year the meeting room saves more than the equivalent of my own home’s entire annual electricity use.
Three Japanese scientists received the Nobel prize this year for inventing the technology that makes commercial white LED lights possible. As the Nobel committee’s press release says:
“The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power. The invention of the efficient blue LED is just twenty years old, but it has already contributed to create white light in an entirely new manner to the benefit of us all.”
To get LEDs to the point that they are cheap enough to be of interest to developing countries, they had to go from a lab experiment to an inexpensive commercial technology – often a long road. The world leader is the Dutch company Philips (three of the top 10 are European, one is American and six are Japanese). Philips made a laudable business decision that LEDs were a big future market, but their confidence is likely reinforced by the supportive European policy environment. The EU is in the process of phasing out incandescent light bulbs, giving LEDs an opening that it will capitalise on in competition with compact fluorescents, as they reduce costs and improve performance. That tipping point has now basically been crossed, bringing LEDS to the point that a mid-range Peruvian hotel has chosen to install them without phase outs, mandates or subsidies.
Naturally, China is in line to become a big player in LEDs. The NDRC predicts that by 2015, the country will earn $30 billion in manufacturing and 20% of the market will be LEDs. Not uncoincidentally, China is also phasing out many types of incandescents in the next three years.
The LED story reflects the whole package we want to see across clean energy technologies: basic research lays a solid basis; companies are willing to take those technologies into nascent markets; governments, recognising they have environmental and economic goals to reach, set efficiency standards that expand those markets, encouraging more investment in the technology. Costs drop to the point that it becomes accessible globally.
We could tell a similar story about solar PV: obligations and subsidies, first in Japan, and then at even larger scale in Germany, increased markets to the point that large-scale manufacturing, including in China, brought down costs for everyone. Germany’s efforts driving PV down the innovation cost curve means that its efforts save the globe billions of dollars every year, and gives countries across the development spectrum the opportunity to take advantage of solar’s benefits.
The nature of the international negotiations can promote a static understanding of the actions needed to reach global decarbonisation well before the end of the century: it appears to be a numbers game, with the full range of efforts supposedly contained in percentages for which governments are meant to take responsibility, but come nowhere near achieving, with the remainder of the effort deferred, or shoved under the carpet.
This view is depressing and disempowering – it makes failure appear nearly inevitable, and it undermines the momentum everyone knows is actually building globally. Technology, investment, policy and public engagement have turned a corner, and emissions reductions will follow if we continue to do two things: slow down processes that emit and speed up ones that don’t. It’s a pretty straightforward concept. If we add to that the efforts and finance needed to increase our resilience in the face of the amount of climate change that is already inevitable, then we have the main aspects covered.
In the UNFCCC, the language of commitments for such a package will of course be couched in its own abstruse form of performance art. There are elements of an international deal long under discussion that sound promising – like ‘technology transfer,’ which is one of many cul-de-sacs from which nothing ever emerges. But fortunately when looking at the draft negotiating documents coming out of the important ‘ADP’ sessions (The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, for heaven’s sake), most of the ingredients for a more inclusive, more flexible, and yet still equitable agreement with real commitments, are on (or at least hovering near) the table.
A good litmus test for the agreement in Europe will be whether it accommodates – or even facilitates – clearing up some currently perverse situations. Consider that the EU will blow past its 2020 target but is unwilling to commit to this in the UN. It has tabled 2030 obligations that is knows represents a slow-down in action over the previous decade, but feels compelled to paint it as a glorious achievement to avoid upsetting the perceived balance of international burden sharing. The UNFCCC needs to provide opportunities for countries to aim high, and keep ratcheting the level of efforts to help stay below 2 degrees. It should hold their feet to the fire in light of the urgent need for emissions reductions, and work towards a better recognition of the positive actions Parties can take individually and collectively.
While the reality of climate change is becoming dire, avoiding the worst of it is a challenge we will rise to only by creating a positive spirit of change and opportunity. I’m certainly hoping that staring at the ceiling two days before the start of the COP isn’t the most uplifting moment of the fortnight!