Feature

Climate: urgent action required


Steve Sawyer

It's been another busy period for GWEC's Steve Sawyer, who has attended an eye-watering number of international events on the circuit. Here, he brings us up to date with a view from the front line of the climate change debate…

The only questions I get asked these days are about how the international credit crisis is affecting – or is going to affect:

  • The wind industry;
  • The climate negotiations;
  • The US elections.

The answer to the first two up until a couple of weeks ago was “not much”, but since then credit markets have dried up entirely, which affects all capital intensive industries, including ours. The only reference to the climate change negotiations is how the credit crisis has taken the subject off the front burner, and made Governments cautious. However the good news is that in the US election campaign, the debate is now focused on real issues.

In addition the US Congress has finally passed a one year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) as part of the big bailout package – not, however, without throwing in a poison bill in the form of a couple of billion dollars subsidy to the fossil fuel industry for developing oil shale and tar sands. The poor folk down at Exxon and Chevron/Texaco really needed some extra cash, so Congress was happy to oblige, especially since they're managing the budget of a country which may this year post a deficit in the vicinity of US$1 trillion.

I sincerely hope that by the time this piece is printed we've seen the bottom of the financial crisis and are on the way up again; I also hope that banks are back in the business of lending money to people for houses they can afford, and to real companies who make real products and develop renewable energy projects.

Summer ended early for those of us attending the “extra” climate negotiations in Accra, Ghana from 20–27 August. About 1500 people gathered at the Accra Convention for a special session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), and the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments of Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP). Isn't it nice how these names just roll off the tip of your tongue?

Much of the time in negotiations was spent by Government negotiators re-hashing old positions that are very much out of touch with the emerging climate crisis. This is further complicated by the ambiguous position of the USA.

Everyone knows that the US position is going to change after the election in November, but until they have a clearer idea of what that change is going to mean, things are going to be slow. The US will continue to be represented by Bush administration negotiators until after the new US President is sworn in – when January 2009 arrives. The Bush administration continues to oppose legally binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there is understandable reluctance on the part of many other countries to proceed further without the participation of the world's largest economy, and the largest contributor to the climate change problem.

The climate continues to change faster than the positions of the negotiators. Although the Arctic ice pack started to freeze up again at the end of September, it seems that this year set a new record for the loss of ice pack volume, and the reduction in coverage was the second lowest on record.

From Accra to Geneva, where the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) celebrated its 20th anniversary in conjunction with its 29th plenary session, from 31 August to 4 September. Dignitaries included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who congratulated the IPCC and called on Governments to heed the clear call from the scientific community for action in the face of the “full-scale crisis” of human-induced climate change.

The highlight of the session, however, was provided by UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner (who is now also a UN Under-Secretary General). Steiner suggested that not only was the IPCC central to bringing this planetary crisis to the politicians in a way that could not be ignored, but also that it had handed them an obligation to act – and if accepted, he said, this would lead not only to the protection of the global climate but also of humanity as a whole, and would see the world take a giant step forward in addressing poverty, inequity, the loss of biodiversity, conflict over resources and many of the other ills that have plagued us throughout our history. This requires new types of thinking, he said, and when the history books of this age are written, the work of the IPCC will be seen as central.

The formal IPCC session itself was unremarkable, featuring the uncontested re-election of Rajendra Pachauri as Chair for a second term, and the election of new co-Chairs of the three Working Groups and the Bureaux, which will coordinate and lead the work on the preparation of the Panel's 5th Assessment Report which is currently scheduled for release in 2013. New Working Group III co-Chairs Ottmar Edenhofer of Germany, Ramon Pichs-Madruga of Cuba, and Youba Sokona of Mali will oversee the preparation of the upcoming Special Report on Renewable Energy – a crucial milestone for our industry – which is scheduled for completion in 2010.

From the shores of Lake Geneva to the muddy fields of Schleswig-Holstein from 9–13 September, for Husum WindEnergy 2008, the world's largest wind energy trade fair. 30,000 visitors from 40 countries crowded into the huge maze of tents to view the wares of more than 700 companies. German Minister of Economics and Technology Michael Glos and long time renewable energy advocate (and Schleswig-Holstein Prime Minister Peter Harry Carstensen) were on hand for the opening ceremonies.

By the time the fair was underway, all hotel rooms in Husum were booked out for the next fair, which will run from 7–11 September 2010 and see the inauguration of a new conference centre in this old fishing town on the North Sea coast.

GWEC hosted Wind Power Forum: The New Energy Economy at the Husum fair, to highlight the local and regional economic benefits of wind power development. Case studies from Inner Mongolia in China, Sweetwater Texas USA, and the Canton of Fruges in France showed both the similarities and the differences between the economic and social benefits (as well as the difficulties) faced by wind power development in each region. UNEP Energy Programme Coordinator Mark Radka previewed the new UNEP report Green Jobs: Towards Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World; including estimates that current employment in the renewable energy sector is over 2.3 million, and set to grow steeply in the future.

But the highlight of the Forum was former NATO commander General Wesley Clark, who has recently embarked on a new career in wind energy. General Clark listened to Schleswig-Holstein Prime Minister Carstensen's inspiring talk about the positive impact of the wind energy industry in his country, and responded by calling for the same kind of courage from US politicians. Clark outlined the challenges facing the US in the energy sector, and added, “we are at a turning point in the USA. We now need courageous politicians to address the existing problems that wind energy is facing.” He also called on Congress to pass the extension of the PTC, which it has now finally done.

From Husum back to Switzerland, this time to Ruschlikon outside Zurich, and to the very impressive Swiss RE Center for Global Dialogue, where the International Finance Corporation and the Swiss Economic Affairs Department organised a two-day seminar on Financing for Climate: Innovative Solutions and New Markets on 11–12 September.

It's interesting to hear the climate issue being discussed by a new (for me) crowd, consisting primarily of investment bankers, private equity fund managers, insurance companies, Government officials from economic departments and high ranking International Finance Corporation (IFC) folk. Especially powerful were IFC vice-President Rachel Kyte's closing remarks, reminding the audience of the critical time factor, the urgency in getting the finances right as regards climate issues, and the need to do so fast, “as we're running out of time”. Not the sort of exhortation one expects from the IFC. Let's hope all these bankers haven't become an endangered species in the last three weeks.

And to end on a positive note, largely unremarked upon in the Western press. Leading Chinese economist Hu Angang from Tsinghua University (no relation to Chinese President Hu Jintao) issued a call for China to accept binding international goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the current round of climate talks. Breaking with the Government's official line, Hu said “it's in China's own interest to accept greenhouse gas emissions goals, not just in the international interest”, calling climate change, “a common battlefront we must join.”

China's official line is that it is a developing country, with relatively low per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, and that although its emissions are now growing, it bears little responsibility for the build-up of greenhouse gases over the past two centuries which are currently causing the planet to warm.

Hu Angang, who has a history of “stepping out” in Chinese policy circles, suggests that China's emissions should grow until 2020 after which they would be dramatically cut, returning to 1990 levels by 2030, and then to half of that by 2050. In agreeing to these steps, and in taking a leadership role in the talks, China could emerge from the process as an economic and diplomatic winner, according to Hu. Let's hope that sort of sentiment spreads to official circles and other Governments around the world, and fas

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