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Copenhagen - Some hope amid the haze

Europe: Christian Kjaer sums up the disappointment with the Copenhagen climate summit that was felt by leaders across the renewable energy sector. The biggest climate change conference that the world has ever witnessed did nothing to fight climate change, says the chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA)

Copenhagen Summit: the crowds show their enthusiasm for a positive outcome
Copenhagen Summit: the crowds show their enthusiasm for a positive outcome

Kjaer notes that the two biggest global polluters, China and the US, decided it was not in their interest to agree on greenhouse gas reductions and adds that the summit also established a new world order in which China and the US took it upon themselves to decide on issues affecting all countries.

Many governments and organisations around the world agree that the 15th Conference of the Parties (Cop 15) in Denmark in December was a failure in other ways as well: no timetable for mandatory targets; no carbon reduction targets for 2020 nor a road map to deeper cuts by 2050; it achieved only a non-binding accord, sewn up between the US and China and sidelining the rest of the world including the EU; and the accord was not adopted by the 193 countries party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. What is more, the voluntary commitments by countries fell short of those that scientists say are needed to keep the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degsC.

Expectations were high. But after two weeks of painstaking and at times farcical negotiations, the US and the BASIC group of developing powers - Brazil, South Africa, India and China - hammered out a last-minute deal. The other 188 nations could only take it or leave it. Many left it. In its final plenary session, Cop 15 merely "took note" of the accord rather than adopting it.

Some progress

Despite its shortcomings, the accord has received measured praise for recognising scientists' argument that global temperature rises should be limited to 2 degsC, amid nay-saying from climate-change sceptics - although many countries, including those most at risk from rising sea levels and increased desertification, believe the limit should be 1.5 degsC. The accord also commits developed countries to providing financial help to developing nations for tackling emissions and mitigating climate change - including protecting forests - to the tune of $10 billion a year up to 2012, rising to $100 billion by 2020. Some of this funding will be through a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.

Kjaer says it is too soon to know what these funding provisions might mean in practice: "It is very vague in terms of where the money is going to come from and what it is going to be spent on."

Likewise, nobody knows what the Copenhagen green fund will look like or who will govern it. Any potential impact on wind energy is expected to be linked to technology transfer from rich countries to the developing world. But Kjaer points out that governments cannot merely sign away the rights to technology owned by commercial companies. The money, he says, would be better spent on putting in place frameworks and incentive mechanisms. "Wind's competitiveness in many developing countries is very strong, but it requires frameworks," he says. "It requires that we remove specific subsidies to fossil fuels."

Kjaer is encouraged that 110 state leaders came to discuss a single issue, climate change. "That has never happened before outside a UN building in New York," he says. "What we have got is the political momentum and recognition from the leaders of this world that climate change is the biggest problem facing humanity at the moment. It is on the radar of every head of state in the world."

Bargaining power

While the EU was unable to lead by example at Copenhagen, losing some of its hard-earned influence in climate matters, Kjaer says this should not discourage future ambition. But the EU needs to figure out how to take the wheel as it pushes for a future agreement, he adds. "It has the moral high ground and the world will need global climate leadership from the EU in 2010 more than ever, now that the superpowers have shown their true colours."

Moreover, it still has another card to play. The EU has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, providing that other major emitters follow suit. Many European countries at Copenhagen favoured unilaterally adopting the 30% target to add weight to its presence at the negotiations. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso blocked the move. "If the EU had insisted on doing 30% regardless of the international agreement, I don't believe they would have changed the outcome of Copenhagen one bit," says a commentator at the talks. "But they would have thrown away a bargaining chip in the lead-up to Mexico."

Eddie O'Connor, chief executive of Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power agrees that the EU should show the way forward. "We are the people with the answers," he says. However, between commissions, the EU currently lacks a strong foreign policy coordinator to speak for all 25 nations.

An international deal will eventually be agreed, he believes, and China will sign up, by which time it will be able to export its technology to developing countries. What is needed from a future agreement is a decent price to be set on carbon, he says, adding: "You have to make it penal for people to build new coal plants. You have to make it penal for people to do anything other than drive electric cars."

International Energy Agency (IEA) chief economist Fatih Birol warns of the message the weak Copenhagen agreement sends to energy investors. One of the aspirations ditched was a 50% cut in emissions by 2050. This would have paved the way for more zero-carbon technologies and efficiency projects. The energy sector will be making investment decisions over the next two years on projects held over from the financial crisis, Birol says. "Since there is not a strong signal coming from Copenhagen, those energy investments may well be unsustainable." Without a clear driver such as high carbon prices, energy companies may opt for coal-based generation that will be around for 40 to 50 years, he concludes, giving countries some serious thinking to do as they turn towards Mexico in December.

Chinese verve undimmed by Copenhagen anti-climax

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