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COP15: What can renewable energy expect from COP15?

Steve Sawyer, GWEC

This is it. 2009 is the year to get serious about climate change, the greatest challenge of our age. World leaders meeting in Copenhagen need to reach an ambitious progressive post-2012 climate agreement. But vague promises and finger pointing will not cut it this time, cautions Steve Sawyer of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC).

As COP15 is under way, how do we stand? Well, there is now text on the table, and negotiations are moving. But only slowly. And we are all responsible for ensuring that they succeed.

The economic crisis cannot be used as an excuse to derail or delay this process. If anything, the recession is an opportunity to drive forward the far-reaching changes needed to tackle climate change. ‘Business-as-usual’ is not an option.

This is not the time for world leaders to bury their heads in the sand – or in their hands – but to look up to the sky for the answer. We may be running out of time, but we are not running out of options. Wind power and other renewable energy must be a key part of the solution to climate change, and provide a much-needed boost to economies around the world. Wind power for example is already part of the energy mix in more than 70 countries, and on track to save 10 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2020. And that is just the beginning.

Wind power has come of age. While 2008 was an abysmal year for the global economy, it was incredible for wind power. It became the leading technology for new power generation in the EU, saving the CO2 equivalent to taking more than 50 million cars off Europe’s roads. China doubled its capacity for the fourth year running and wind accounted for 42% of new power added in the USA. Wind power needs to be moved up from the kids’ table and seen for what it is: a practically unlimited source of clean, renewable energy ready to compete with, and ultimately replace the big guns – oil, coal, and gas – and help steer us towards a sustainable, low-carbon future.

The disconnect

There is a lingering and frustrating disconnect between the growing strength of wind power on the ground, and the continued tendency of both governments and the public to consider renewable energy sources a sideshow rather than the main event when considering our energy future. GWEC is determined to bring this to an end.

Grasping the real potential of wind and other renewable energy sources could convince governments and citizens of industrialised states to finally get off the fence and commit to the deep, binding emissions cuts needed to tackle climate change. And a firm commitment to emission reductions and renewable energy in Copenhagen would convince private sector investors to continue their support for the expansion of wind power needed for it to reach its full potential.

Private investors are already proving their keen interest in wind power. The global market for wind turbine installations in 2008 was worth more than €36 billion. Clean and renewable energy investors are poised to commit far more, but they are looking to governments to prove their firm commitment to a post-2012 agreement, and establish a clear and stable policy framework. COP15 in Copenhagen should be the turning point, ushering in a period of accelerated global wind power expansion. Governments need to realise that further delays and uncertainties will threaten billions in investment and the creation of millions of new jobs – which they can ill-afford in the current economic climate.

Need for agreement

The central element required to end this uncertainty is an agreement on deep carbon emission reductions by the industrialised states. The blame game between rich and poor nations that has plagued every climate discussion for the past 20 years must end, especially as the world has changed so much since the end of the Cold War. The rapidly emerging economies in China, India and elsewhere have changed the balance of power in the global economy beyond all recognition.

Industrialised states must own up to their responsibilities and commit to new and legally binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol track. Scientists agree that these targets need to be in the range of at least 25%–40% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have any chance of averting the worst consequences of climate change.

It is far from certain that we will achieve this goal, particularly as it is crucial that governments make their national emission reduction targets clear - before arriving at COP15 in Copenhagen. The EU missed a great opportunity at the Poznan Climate Conference in 2008 by failing to bring their impressive new climate and energy legislation to the table well ahead of time, and the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and Russia all arrived empty-handed.

Governments must not be permitted to hijack COP15 in Copenhagen as a platform to announce domestic pledges; they need to come ready to trust, cooperate and move forward. The greatest challenge of our age cannot be fobbed off with a heavily-compromised agreement.

There are movements in the right direction. The EU leads the pack with an agreement to a 20% below 1990 levels emissions cut by 2020, with the promise to raise this to 30% if an international agreement is reached. To help it reach this target, the EU has agreed an ambitious renewable energy bill, which includes binding targets for all member states to achieve a 20% supply of renewable energy across the entire EU by 2020. It’s a good start, even though it’s not enough.

In most other industrialised countries, science and sense have yet to triumph over politics. The USA and Australia are still recovering from their years in the obstructionist wilderness, with the new administrations trying hard to get their climate and energy policies passed in time for COP15 in Copenhagen.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act, which was recently adopted by the US House of Representatives, includes a 17% reduction of CO2 by 2020 from 2005 levels, which translates into only about 3%-4% from 1990 levels. The Bill, which, despite its shortcomings, is the most ambitious one ever debated at the Federal level in the USA, is now working its way through the Senate, where its prospects are far from certain.

And the USA is no longer the worst of the bunch. Canada has been dubbed a “colossal fossil” for its paltry pledge to reduce emissions to 20% below 2006 levels by 2020, which would only take it back into the vicinity of its 1990 emissions. Japan was jeered at the Bonn negotiations in June for announcing a similarly unambitious target of 15% below 2005 levels, which would amount to only 8% of reductions from 1990 levels (or only 2% more than its current obligation under the Kyoto Protocol).

2050 is too late

Deep emission cuts by 2020 are essential. While some Governments are trying to focus on 2050, this is far too late. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly shown that emissions must peak – and start to decline – during the next decade in order to have a reasonable chance to achieve the near universal target of keeping the global mean temperature rise between 2ºC or less above pre-industrial levels, and save ourselves from climate catastrophe.

The 2020 timeframe makes it vital that a major transformation of our energy systems begins now.

So-called 'clean coal', or carbon capture and storage (CCS), is unproven and even if it does manage to reduce emissions will take years to become operational. We should be weaning ourselves off coal and investing in genuine alternatives, not hedging our bets. CCS is the ultimate example of trying to have our cake and eat it too, and – along with misguided talk of new nuclear power stations being the answer to climate change – is a dangerous distraction.

Installation time is critical. It can take decades (not to mention billions of dollars) to approve and build a new coal, gas or nuclear power plant; wind farms can be up and running in a matter of months. The technology is there, the investors are ready, and polls show that the public is enthusiastic: the only obstacle is the political will to make it happen.

Governments are waking up to the fact that wind power works. Several are now directing economic stimulus funding towards the sector and hailing the new green jobs and opportunities it can provide. The US stimulus package will invest US$150bn in renewable energy over 10 years, and China, India and Europe are all investing heavily. The US Department of Energy has presented a realistic scenario under which wind provides 20% of the nation’s power generation by 2030. This growing faith in wind power needs to be translated into a willingness to commit to emission reductions. There are no more excuses, and there is no more time to lose.

Let’s end the 'noughties' on a high note and ring in 2010 to the tune of wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. Our leaders have the chance to finally shake off the divisive and destructive legacy of the 20th century and launch a new era of cooperation and sustainability. We just need to set our sails to the wind.

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