Straight talking: Another country must take on climate leadership

WORLDWIDE: I was back at UN headquarters in New York in June for the first Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4ALL), part of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon's initiative to achieve universal access to modern energy and double the efficiency and renewable-energy penetration in the global energy supply, all by 2030.

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The goals are ambitious enough, yet they also reflect the parlous state of international action on ... well ... just about everything.

Gone are the days when governments got together, negotiated hard, and in the end made legally binding agreements. While the SE4ALL initiative does have clear targets and a timetable, there was not even any discussion of international mechanisms that would give them a fighting chance of happening, never mind legally binding measures to ensure that they do.

In that context, President Barack Obama's new Environmental Protection Agency rule to limit emissions from power plants is arguably the most positive measure any US administration has ever taken to limit CO2 emissions; and at the same time nowhere near enough to even begin to make a difference, either politically or in terms of meeting the goal of keeping the global mean temperature rise lower than 2 degsC above pre-industrial levels. To be fair, it's probably the best that the administration can do, given the clear unwillingness of the US Congress to act on climate, and it will, if finally enacted in anything like its present form, give a boost to investment in renewable energy across the country. But it also highlights the US's inability to agree to any international climate agreement with any teeth.

China more willing to act

Almost immediately afterwards (one can only hope it was choreographed), a series of signals emerged from China about its intention to cap carbon emissions. Early reports indicated that a decision had been taken, but in reality what is being discussed in Beijing is how the issue is going to be addressed in the next five-year plan, which begins in 2016. China is, of course, very vulnerable to climate impacts, but public reaction to widespread pollution and the choking smog engulfing all its major cities is probably more of a driver.

These and other signals emerging from June's G-7 summit in Brussels are a positive sign that the climate issue is climbing back up the political agenda, and there is increasing evidence of serious behind-the-scenes discussions between US and China about how to tackle the climate problem. Without some basic agreement between China and the US, the issue will remain dead in the water internationally, so this too is a positive sign.

However, this forward movement is not yet reflected in the formal climate negotiations, and the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany, which also took place in June, showed few signs of a change in anyone's position on just about anything. My impression of the political stance of the negotiators is that it has been moving steadily backwards since the 2009 COP-15 climate conference in Copenhagen, and that we are now listening to speeches that could have been made in the 1990s. Having said that, it seems that Washington and Beijing's moves meant there was more of a constructive atmosphere in Bonn than has been the case in the recent past. We'll see if that translates into anything concrete.

Growth of renewables

Also in New York, I participated in the release of the new REN21 Global Status Report (GSR) on the global renewables industry. When the first GSR was launched in Beijing in 2005, there were about 48 countries with renewable-energy support policies, only 15 of them outside the OECD. Now the tally stands at 144, including 95 developing and emerging economies with targets and or renewable-energy support policies. When we launched the first GSR in Beijing, China's target for wind installations by 2020 was raised from 20 to 30GW; now the same target has just been increased to 200GW, and we are likely to exceed that.

The tremendous growth in the sector over the past decade, as well as the dramatic cost reductions in wind and solar, have begun to convince an increasing number of governments that their energy future will be renewable - more than 60 countries at the Bonn climate talks announced the intention of having a carbon-free energy system by 2050.

The main missing ingredient at the moment is leadership from a large country or group of countries that will make the first move to get us a meaningful deal in Paris in 2015. Obama has done what he can; we can't expect much more from that quarter. Europe is still too weak and fractious to lead. So we must look for that leadership from China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and/or Korea in some combination if we're going to move forward in Paris. Any takers?

Steve Sawyer is CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council

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