By Annie Agle, Managing Partner of Development Three.
With the much anticipated United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP21) fast approaching, there has been a noticeable absence in the heated debate around the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—predictably, energy experts and engineers have been sidelined from the discussion. In an effort to better understand the plausibility of the proposed goals from the mindset of an established industry leader, Annie Agle of Development Three reached out to one of the world’s foremost energy experts, Milton Catelin, CEO of International Public Affairs, past Chief Executive of the World Coal Association, and former Chief at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Milton, your background involves a stint as both a coal executive and as a Chief at the UNEP—how does your background in energy inform your environmentalism and vice versa?
I’ve never seen a contradiction. All I’ve seen reinforces my belief in the connectedness of economic growth and effective environmental stewardship. Ultimately, it is only healthy, growing economies that have the time, inclination and resources essential for providing lasting environmental answers.
The “100% renewable” plan, which stipulates a total adoption of renewables as the sole supplier of electricity and transport energy by 2050, has been advanced by the United Nations and other global leaders. Is this plan feasible?
Although it’s a noble rallying cry, I don’t believe it is feasible given our current technologies and the math involved in energy provision. At the moment, every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of renewable energy added to the grid requires another kWh of either gas, coal, nuclear or large-scale hydro for security against intermittency caused by moments when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Those pushing the 100% renewable slogan might wish the sun never sets, but it does.
We need more renewables in the global system, but we can’t bend the rules of physics to fit that agenda.
Where do you see the future of energy?
I see the price of renewables decreasing (though not as quickly as they have done to date), which supports the possibility of further market penetration. However, renewable technologies will experience limited adoption until intermittency issues like lack of wind and limited storage are addressed. Developments in battery technology will be critical to that effort. In the meantime, coal and gas will remain large parts of global energy through this century. People mistake why coal and gas are used: It’s not supply driven; it’s demand driven. So long as coal or gas are cheaper and more reliable than alternatives, economies seeking to fuel low-cost growth will favor these options.
If we move in the direction of adopting both renewables and continuing to improve existing energy solutions, will it be enough to decrease the immediate threats of climate change?
I think the science is telling us it’s too late for that. All the science-literate delegations to the Paris Climate Conference know this. It’s just that no one delegation wants to talk about it too much and be characterized as a doomsayer. The reality is we’re going to need to fund quite a lot of adaptation even if we turn out all the lights, close all the power stations, and mothball all forms of transport.
Given population growth and rising living standards in the developing world, we’re going to have to fund adaptation measures – aimed at minimizing the impacts of climate change – and introduce ways we can increase access to energy but produce it in a way that it is far less damaging to the environment. Renewables are key to that but they only currently provide 1.3% of global primary energy. So technology that reduces the greenhouse emissions of fossil fuels to near zero is at least as important, probably much more so. The good news is the world’s first practical example of carbon capture and storage at scale is now operating at a coal plant in Boundary Dam, Canada; we need to focus on building more such operations.
If you were in charge of drafting a global climate/energy solution, what would it look like?
I’d ask a basic question. If you only have one dollar to spend on climate mitigation, what is the best way to proportion it amongst all the possible low carbon solutions? Governments have avoided examining the issue from a stance of practicality– a basic problem when you largely exclude engineers and energy experts and allow the public debate to be run by campaign merchants, celebrities and politicians pandering to 24 hour news cycles. Climate change is a serious challenge and it deserves a serious response that includes those who are in a position to offer real guidance.
I’d also be a little dictatorial. If the past 21 climate COPs have shown us anything, it is that if you open a debate to 195 countries, the pace will be set by the lowest and slowest. We all need to step back from the process and allow a far smaller and manageable process to emerge. We don’t need more than 120 UN officers sitting in a castle on the Rhine (the UN Climate Change Secretariat) supporting annual and more frequent meetings of anywhere between 10,000 to 40,000 negotiators from 196 nations.
As undemocratic as it sounds, five nations account for about half the world’s greenhouse emissions. The largest 10 make the contribution of the other 186 nations almost irrelevant. We need those 10 to demonstrate leadership. We need those 10 to meet alone and agree on a course of constructive steps they will implement amongst themselves. We need those 10 – who collectively dominate not only greenhouse emissions but world innovation, production, consumption, manufacturing, mining, energy and trade to set an example by their actions. And the rest of us? We need to stand back and let them get on with it.
Public outcry has started to heavily influence energy policy. On the one hand, this has led to multinationals and governments adopting forward-thinking sustainable solutions; on the other hand, environmentalism has resulted in a questionable shift away from potential energy solutions like nuclear and natural gas. When do activists get it right? When do they get it wrong?
We need activists. They remind us all about what’s important. But we need to recognize that the solutions are never as simplistic as slogans. Nuclear has problems. Coal has problems. Renewables have problems. They all do. Activists are good at waking us up and making us pay attention, but many are starting to behave like lobbyists – and the complex challenges we face won’t be simply solved by the loudest critic.
Where does the biggest potential to cut carbon admissions lie? With individuals? With extraction-side factories? With existing energy suppliers? With renewables?
Graphs of carbon emissions over time match graphs of population growth over time or economic growth, and so on. Climate change is so much harder than its policy precisely because it is pervasive – all humans contribute to the problem. Ultimately you need an array of behavioral and technological fixes operating simultaneously.
Personally, I think all the science is revealing that whatever else we do we will need carbon capture use and storage technologies deployed at scale in the very near future – not just on power stations, but on industrial processes globally.
One example: We need to raise the global average efficiency of coal power plants. The global average is about 33%. Raising that average to just 40% – highly achievable with off-the-shelf technology today – would eliminate 2 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per annum. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the equivalent of India’s annual CO2 emissions OR the equivalent of running all the measures in the Kyoto Protocol three times over OR the equivalent of running the European Emissions Trading Scheme at its current level for the next 53 years.
How can small to medium sized community organizations adapt to climate change and be on the forefront of sustainable solutions?
Maintain pressure on governments to act but don’t be fooled by easy slogans. Be open. Understand that energy brings great things to society. All meaningful measures of human experience correlate to greater energy use – life expectancy, literacy rates, infant survival rates, etc. Understand that a lasting solution to climate change will not come by denying developing countries access to the energy entitlements enjoyed in the Western world. Search for ways that energy use can be improved without pollution. Understand the math behind energy choices.