By Robert Youngberg, ISES Professional Silver Member
With additional contributions by ISES Board Member Dr. José Gonzalez-Aguilar
The International Solar Energy Society, through Dave Renné, immediate past President of ISES, and Jennifer McIntosh, ISES Executive Secretary, generously invited me to represent ISES at the 25th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP), held in Madrid, Spain on 2-13 December 2019. With just 4 weeks’ notice, COP 25 had been moved from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, Spain due to civil unrest in Chile. It was truly an honor to serve as Observer Delegate for the International Solar Energy Society at COP25, where the 197 country delegates that are signatories to the Paris Agreement discussed, negotiated, and renewed their commitment to address climate change. I have been involved in solar energy, nationally and internationally beginning in the mid-1970s, so I was particularly interested in supporting ISES’ vision to addressing the climate crisis through rapid adoption of renewable energy technologies worldwide to decarbonize all of our end-use energy consumption.
The objective of the UNFCCC is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
Since the establishment of the UNFCCC at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro the message has been clear - climate change is by far the world’s greatest existential crisis now and in the near future. For 25 years, delegates to the COPs have stressed that significant action must be taken as soon as possible to reduce CO2 and other Green House Gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere. At COP25 ISES shared a booth with Solar Cookers International (SCI) in the exhibition area of the Blue Zone. I spent some time with the Caitlyn Hughes, Executive Director of SCI, and her team. I was very impressed with their frequent meetings, presentations at numerous country pavilions and many press conferences. One particular highlight was when the United States Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and Members of the House and Senate Congressional Delegation stopped by the ISES/SCI booth for several minutes.
A media highlight included the arrival of Greta Thunberg at the COP, who spoke to the General Assembly of the Party Delegates. Greta had just been named as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, and on Friday evening of the first week she led a several hundred-thousand-person rally in the streets of Madrid. Other media highlights included Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Presidential candidate addressing the General Assembly, where he famously announced, “I am here because Trump isn’t!”
ISES was also represented at a COP25 Side Event discussion by Dr. José Gonzalez-Aguilar, newly elected ISES Board Member and Senior Researcher, High Temperature Processes Unit, IMDEA Energy. The panel was organized by the REN Alliance, of which ISES is a partner along with the International Hydropower Association (IHA), the World Bioenergy Association (WBA), the World Wind Energy Association (WWEA), and the International Geothermal Association (IGA). The title of the event was “Stronger Together: Showcasing Success of Renewable Energy Technologies Working Together” and focused on the theme “Energy is central to addressing major challenges of the 21st Century”. The side event showcased best-practice examples and experiences from the renewables sector.
The side event featured a keynote presentation by Laura Williamson of the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21). She also served as the moderator, and following her talk there were short interventions from representatives of each of the REN Alliance Partners: Mathis Rogner (IHA), Remigijus Lapinskas (WBA), Khalid Benhamou (WWEA), José Gonzalez-Aguilar (ISES) and Marit Brommer (IGA).
Dr. Gonzalez-Aguilar’s presentation focused on:
- The role of renewable energies and trends, particularly solar energy, is at the heart of the current energy transformation. The energy transformation is driving, and being driven by, massive renewable energy deployments; much due to local, regional, and private-sector initiatives, and stakeholder engagement.
- The current situation points out that renewable contributions are growing up and will dominate the electricity sector. However, a similar development must occur for the heating and cooling and transport sectors in order to increase penetration in terms of primary energy.
- More political will is needed, especially at national and international levels, to support renewable implementation and promote the goal to quickly phase out all new major carbon-based investments.
- Continued R&D and project success stories will unleash much more private finance by lowering risk and improving investor confidence.
Background on the Climate Crisis:
The major anthropogenic contributor to global warming and climate change is the emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the most important of which is carbon dioxide (CO2), followed by methane (NH4) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These emissions have been growing since the start of the Industrial Revolution due to a range of human behaviors e.g., burning fossil fuels as an energy source and deforestation.
CO2 emissions continue to increase globally. Discussions at the COP25 centered on ‘Peak CO2’ i.e. when will national and global CO2 emissions peak, and then decline. China, which is the largest CO2 emitter in the world, has put in place programs that should result in national Peak CO2 emissions in about 2023 – 2024. This coincides with predicted peak global coal consumption in 2-3 years. The U.S. is the second largest global CO2 emitter after China and is among the highest countries for greenhouse gas emissions per capita, about double that of China and other developed countries.
The UNFCCC COP Process
The UNFCCC COP process develops plans and commitments by the Party Delegate Countries that focus on two main strategies for combatting climate change – Mitigation and Adaptation:
a) UN Environment takes a multifaceted approach towards climate change mitigation in its efforts to help countries move towards climate-resilient and low emissions strategies.
b) Climate Change Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases. Mitigation can mean using new technologies and renewable energies, making older equipment more energy efficient, or changing management practices or consumer behavior. It can be as complex as a plan for a new city, or as a simple as improvements to a cook stove design. The UNFCCC Mitigation strategy also includes CO2 Sinks - typically afforestation and reforestation.
Adaptation, in the simplest terms, refers to the actions that countries will need to take to respond to the impacts of climate change that are already happening, while at the same time preparing for future impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices and structures that can reduce our vulnerability to climate change impacts, such as sea level rise or food insecurity. It also includes making the most of any beneficial opportunities associated with climate change, such as increased crop yields or longer growing seasons in some regions.
The UNFCCC highly encourages Mitigation vs. Adaptation. It is easier and more effective to address climate change by reducing GHG emissions now rather than to adapt to the consequences of the CO2 emissions sometime in the future. In the future the original issue will still need to be addressed: that additional CO2 emissions may need to be removed from the atmosphere, and various adaptation measures may need to be implemented.
Developed, Transitioning, and Least Developed Country Economies
The UNFCCC COP negotiations consider the individual countries economic development status and the energy needs of countries when negotiating their CO2 reduction commitments. The negotiations also consider the CO2 emissions in four basic economic sectors - power, industrial, transportation, and buildings for each country. Historically the United States has been the largest source of anthropogenic CO2 emission into the atmosphere. Since 1751 the US has contributed more than twice that of China, the second largest national contributor of CO2 emissions into atmosphere according to Our World of Data, October 2019.
In response to the climate crisis, many countries, states, cities, and companies have taken significant steps to addressing climate change issues in the Power Sector by significantly reducing and eliminating GHG emissions by implementing clean sources of renewable energy, i.e. Solar PV and wind-generated electricity. For example, the U.S. is fast shutting down or converting to natural gas its coal-fired power plants and is also the world’s second largest annual installer of Solar PV.
However, U.S. PV installations are only about half of new PV installations in China, which installs about 1/3 of all new global Solar PV capacity annually (45 GW in 2018, according to the 2019 REN21 Global Status Report).
Advanced Economies Doing Better
There were many presentations at the COP25 by the International Energy Agency (IEA). According to the latest reports by the IEA, overall global energy-related CO2 emissions is showing sign of leveling off. As shown in Figure 1, CO2 emissions in ‘Advanced Economies’ has been decreasing for the last 15 years. This resulted mainly from a sharp decline in CO2 emissions from the power sector in Advanced Economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable sources (mainly wind and solar PV), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power output.
But CO2 emissions in ‘The Rest of the World’ are growing at a faster pace, offsetting reductions in Advance Economies. The CO2 emissions in the Rest of the World continues to grow as these countries’ economies, and therefore their energy requirements, expand.
Figure 1: Energy-related CO2 emissions for advanced economies, and for the rest of the world (Source: https://www.iea.org/articles/global-co2-emissions-in-2019).
Figure 2 illustrates that in Advanced Economies electricity generation continues to grow, but that CO2 emissions are decreasing significantly, due primarily to the transition from coal to natural gas and increased renewable energy capacity.
Figure 2 : Comparing electricity production and power sector CO2 emissions for advanced economies (Source : https://www.iea.org/articles/global-co2-emissions-in-2019)
Economic growth and increasing energy consumption (fossil fuels) go hand-in hand.
We need to break the ‘Economy - Fossil Fuel Nexus’ and replace it with an ‘Economy - Renewable Energy Nexus’
The Role for ISES
In summary, given ISES’s global reach, credibility, and experience in all countries, ISES will continue to play a significant role in addressing climate change through clean energy provided by solar photovoltaics (PV) and Solar Thermal technologies. ISES’ continued involvement in the annual COPs and expanding its relationships with groups such as Solar Cookers International, International Renewable Energy Agency, Global Solar Council, Ren Alliance, REN 21, IEA, International Solar Alliance and others will be critical in addressing climate change.