WWF Climate & Energy Blog

By Jason Anderson, Head of European Climate and Energy Policy at WWF European Policy Office

On 5 March the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament presented a new study about the ‘carbon bubble’ – the amount of fossil fuel reserves that are unburnable if we want to avoid dangerous global warming – and the implications for players like banks and pension funds in the financial market. If we move rapidly to curb carbon, then fossil fuel companies are by definition overvalued since most of their assets in the ground are unusable. A revaluation would hit investors, including those like pension funds, upon whom many people rely.

Most of the study’s analysis is predicated on the idea that we genuinely want to keep to the goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees, and that the technological and policy changes needed to ensure that are put in place.

But that rapid change scenario is accompanied by two others: an uncertain transition that initially dulls the impact of the carbon bubble on the financial system, but stores up even greater trouble for later as we rush to reduce emissions in time, and a third, more ominous scenario, where we revert to a carbon-based development model and suffer the full impact of climate change, which is by far the worst outcome for all concerned.

So in which world are we currently living?

In some respects, we are certainly witnessing rapid change. Since 2008, half the world’s added electrical generating capacity has been renewable. Non-hydro renewables, mainly wind and solar, were 70% of European capacity additions in 2012. China got more generation from wind in 2012 than from nuclear, and it added more generation from non-hydro renewable energy than from fossil and nuclear combined. That included a whopping 12 GW of solar in 2012. In the United States the energy intensity of economy has declined 50% in 10 years, and Texas, the oil state par excellence, already gets 10% of its energy from wind. And if a country were to want to install the same amount of solar in the next ten years that Germany has in the past ten, it would pay only 1/3 the price for the technology, such is the pace of change.

And despite the slow movement of international climate negotiations, at national level there is more room for optimism. Climate policies are being implemented around the world, as the recent Globe report indicates. There is everything from economy-wide targets as in Mexico, to renewable energy targets and support in a wide variety of countries. In the past decade the reduction in deforestation in Brazil has accounted for greater avoided emissions than EU and US emissions reductions combined.

In the field of investment, we’ve seen public sector banks leading the way. WWF currently has an international campaign called ‘Seize Your Power,’ which has contributed to the effort to push coal out of the lending portfolios of the EIB and EBRD. While we didn’t get everything we wanted from their decisions, we were happy to see the EIB put in a higher shadow carbon price and an emissions performance standard – which is a measure we think ought to be part of EU policy overall. The EBRD’s presumption against coal could effectively mean an end to lending. These moves are part of a wave of decisions by public lenders in Europe and North America that are pointing in the right direction for rapid change.

However, as Europe prepares its framework for 2030 climate and energy policy, the debate raging around us very clearly shows the signs of different scenarios at work. Resistance to policy that would act decisively to get us off of fossil fuels and onto a renewables pathway is highly vocal from a few influential sectors of the economy.

The Magritte group of 10 big energy company CEOs is a canary in the coal mine for the carbon bubble – as Greenpeace’s new report shows, companies like theirs have made the wrong investment decisions and have missed the boat on renewable energy, suffering the consequences. Rather than redoubling their efforts to ensure that coal is definitively ruled out and gas plays an appropriate role in a transition to renewable energy, they shoot in all directions at once, including at renewables and efficiency, and hide behind the promise of an emissions trading system with powers of achievement neither to be predicted in theory nor showing any evidence in reality.

Energy-intensive manufacturing has skilfully played a mantra of victimisation at the hands of climate and energy policy, getting the issue to the point where it dominates the agenda of the next European Council meeting that was meant to agree decisions on the Commission’s 2030 white paper. In fact, while there are clearly reasons to pay close attention to energy prices and the competitiveness of the these sectors, their greatest challenges lie well outside the climate and energy sphere: the quality and availability of researchers, scientists, engineers, and skilled labour consistently tops the list of important elements for competitiveness, with energy costs only 7th of 10 factors in the most recent Deloitte study of CEOs. The recent European Competitiveness report similarly looks at the issue more broadly, finding many opportunities in enhanced knowledge and technology. And the IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlook estimates that despite persistent energy price differentials, EU manufacturing will likely continue to increase output through 2035, by which point it will still have more than double the global market share of either China or the United States.

What we are witnessing is not a battle over climate change policy as such, but the intersection of competing principles of prioritisation: the overriding need to ensure the public is protected from the worst effects of climate change competes with, among other factors, the central aim of business, which is to maximise financial return within the confines of the risk and reward system in which they are currently operating.

Other factors can be invoked to enhance the argument for delaying action on the carbon bubble. Last month I debated Lord Browne, ex-CEO of BP and now chairman of the fracking company Cuadrilla, on the subject of shale gas development in the UK. One of my central arguments was that the carbon bubble dictates that we examine the impact of any new fossil fuel development very critically. Our primary challenge is not to find new and unconventional ways of getting fossil fuels out of the ground, but rather to find new and unconventional ways of keeping them in the ground. Lord Browne fairly astonished me by rebutting that if there is shale gas in the ground it would be Britain’s patriotic duty to extract it.

But perhaps that shouldn’t have been so surprising, since everywhere you go in the world, there is a justification for why their fossil fuels are important and different – because they are responsible operators in Norway or Canada, because it’s a counterweight to North American imperialism in Venezuela, because it’s necessary for economic development in Nigeria, or because the effort to extract it is the lowest in the world on the Arabian peninsula.

With so much at stake, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is an important subtext to the messaging among vested interests: how much we really need to combat climate change and whether there is a line to be drawn anywhere in particular, at 2 degrees or elsewhere.

It comes in the form of the commonly-heard phrase ‘rebalancing competitiveness and security of supply with environmental protection in EU policy’ – as if these were simply fungible, and a bit less environmental protection can be made up for by other things. It’s evident in the way that I’ve heard chemical industry spokesmen in Brussels question whether the climate has stopped warming, and perhaps our concern is overblown. It’s evident in the way petroleum companies produce analyses and forecasts that they claim are completely dispassionate, all showing the world far off track to avoiding dangerous global warming, and then calling these ‘real-world’ and ‘non-ideological’ scenarios that generate an air of fatalism. Resistance is futile.

In Europe, there is an even more facile argument which is to state that whatever the desire to tackle climate change, it’s not going to be affected by what is done in Europe, so there’s really no point in sticking our necks out. It’s interesting to hear certain industries, any one of which accounts for a couple percent of Europe’s GDP, describe Europe’s emissions, which are about 11% of the global total, as being ‘insignificant’.

This combination of a stealthy questioning of the importance of climate change, a steady mantra of stories about shale gas and energy costs, and an emphasis on instruments to combat it that have proven to be inadequate on their own, is a dangerous one. It questions the underlying premise of the carbon bubble report and pushes us firmly into the second or even the third scenario.

This is why a spokesman for the pension fund that is the most exposed to carbon risks in Europe, the UK Universities Superannuation Scheme, recently said to a UK parliamentary inquiry that he questioned whether policymakers would in fact act to implement policies that cause a bubble to burst, citing the failure of the EU Emissions Trading System. In other words, “go ahead, write your reports. We don’t think anything will happen to us.”

It is essential to prove him wrong, because the consequences for everyone, including industry, are far worse than pressing forward with rapid change. And despite the pessimism and power games in the corridors of European capitals, in the streets, the people get it. The new Eurobarometer poll shows that eight in ten Europeans agree that fighting climate change and improving energy efficiency can boost the economy and jobs in the EU (including 7 in 10 Polish people). And nine in ten Europeans think it is important that national governments set targets to increase the amount of renewable energy used by 2030, including almost half thinking it is very important (and, yes, 88% of Polish people think it is important).

As Europe heads to the polls to select a new European Parliament, and potential Commissioners are vetted, it is vital that we connect with Europeans’ desire to fight climate change by facing the issue head on, and pressing forward with rapid change. Delay and diversion is a losing strategy.


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