Glasgow’S COP 26 begins in dramatic climate conditions. However, some signals make us hope in the future. Why so? Let’s go in order… and may the force be with us!
Powerful forces awaken before COP 26
Movements such as Fridays for Future, proposals such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism and the recent adoption of renewables along technological advances may represent a point of discontinuity with the past.
But in my opinion the last two years have marked a change of direction and I hope COP 26 in Glasgow will certify it. If you look at the graph above, you can see that emissions in the EU and the US are falling. This in itself is not particularly encouraging given the top half of the picture, but three key things have happened in the last two years. First, there has been a great collective awareness of the phenomenon thanks to bottom-up movements such as Fridays for Future, which has resulted in increased media coverage and an exploit of green movements in the Western political landscape. Secondly, there was a change of administration in the White House which resulted in the comeback of the United States to the Paris Agreement. Finally, China has started its own emissions trading scheme and in Europe there are serious talks of a Carbon Boarder Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) (for an explanation of what an emissions trading scheme and a CBAM is, read here and here).
These three factors alone could be decisive in the fight against climate change. In particular, if both the EU and the US adopt a CBAM, and after the Biden administration’s snub to France this is a bit more likely, then the chances of a global cascade effect are even higher. Moreover, even if the US were to be more timid than the EU, this does not mean that it would not follow in the old continent’s footsteps later on. The EU has already played a pioneering role in the world, legislating regulations that have been cascaded down to other continents – examples include energy labelling of household appliances, privacy regulations and regulations on chemicals used in the production of children’s toys – the phenomenon is known as the Brussels Effect.
Powerful forces awaken before COP 26
Movements such as Fridays for Future, proposals such as Carbon Border Adjustment and recent technological advances may represent a point of discontinuity with the past.
The rise of renewables
On the other hand, the energy landscape has also changed a great deal in the last decade, and the global scenario in which COP 26 takes place it is not the same as the one of COP 21. Indeed, the rate of adoption of renewable energies such as wind and solar has grown exponentially in the space of a few years. Thanks to their increasing use, the cost of new renewable installations has fallen dramatically globally. The price per megawatt hour of electricity from solar, net of subsidies, has fallen by 89% in 10 years, from $359 to $40 (as of 2019), while the price per megawatt hour of electricity from wind has risen from $135 to $41/MWh. In contrast, the price of electricity from coal on a global scale remained more or less the same at $109/MWh in 2019.
In many countries around the world, solar and wind power are becoming the cheapest option for generating electricity.
Unfortunately, renewables have some limitations, first and foremost those of intermittency (wind power produces energy only when the wind blows and solar only during the day) and storage (it is not easy to save all the energy produced and batteries wear out and cost money). In addition, renewable energy plants require far more land than fossil fuels, with solar and wind requiring 17 to 46 times more space than coal.
Fortunately, technology is making leaps forward in many key areas such as hydrogen, carbon capture and nuclear.
- Hydrogen will be crucial in the energy transition because it compensates for some of the shortcomings of renewable energies. Once obtained, hydrogen is easy to transport and store, making it an ideal substitute for renewables in times of low energy production. That’s why it’s great news that last August, Hybridt, a Swedish consortium, marketed the first green steel made using energy from hydrogen.
- The term Net Zero was coined when it was realised that it would be impossible to achieve Emission Zero by 2050. All sensible scenarios for achieving Net Zero now involve the extensive use of carbon-negative technologies, i.e. technologies that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The opening of Iceland’s largest carbon capture plant ‘Orca’, with an absorption capacity of 4,000 tonnes per year, is therefore also very good news.
- In the last 20 years there have been major developments in nuclear energy and some of its biggest problems, such as waste, construction time and nuclear proliferation (the risk of know-how and by-products of nuclear reactions being used for military purposes). A new generation of reactors is just around the corner (one has just been switched on in China) and new modular reactors that are faster to build, safer, more compact and use waste material from the nuclear reaction as fuel are about to become a reality,, while nuclear fusion (which unlike fission does not produce radioactive waste and does not need uranium) is perhaps no longer just a distant dream.
Solo: A Green Story
The road is certainly uphill, and it is by no means sure that the human species will succeed in limiting the temperature increase compared to pre-industrial levels to 1.5°C. On the other hand, we now know exactly what actions and investments are needed to achieve the goals agreed in Paris six years ago: halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and zeroing them by 2050. This COP will no longer be about future ambitions, but about how governments will fulfil their Paris commitments. The Conference of the Parties in Glasgow has all the makings of a turning point in the fight against global warming.
May the green force be with us.
 UK, Finland, France, US, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, India, Philippines and Nigeria.