Straight talking: Climate change needs private sector investment

WORLDWIDE: Climate change has risen up the agenda to its highest level since Copenhagen in 2009. As I write this, the United Nation's COP 21 climate summit is about to take place in Paris, and despite the terrible events in the city in November, expectations for a positive outcome are high.

Pundits are positive and, with 40,000 people expected to attend the big event, a decision will be made, won't it?

Or are we facing another Copenhagen, with huge expectations, a dramatic build-up and crushing disappointment at the failed conclusion? I think not. First of all because expectations for anything concrete coming out of the intergovernmental process are very low. Second, whatever happens, observers can take some heart from what's happening in the real world, with wind and solar's dramatic growth and cost reductions, business initiatives to support renewable-energy uptake, and activism of all sorts.

The commitments submitted by countries — known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) — represent some modest progress, although they still leave us far short of where we need to be to meet international climate objectives. It is clear that more action is needed, and quickly, to put us on a path to keep the global mean temperature rise well below 2 degsC above pre-industrial levels and, hopefully, close to the 1.5 degsC limit necessary to protect many countries and ecosystems. We have the technology to do so.

Paris is not a "negotiation" per se about the central issues, such as reducing emissions or seriously rearranging the global economy. The INDCs that are being brought to the table are not for negotiation - so the talks can hardly fail. Much will be made of the various institutional arrangements, who sits on which committees, and who is in control of the paltry sums that are being contributed by governments - but in the big picture, none of this matters very much.

What does matter is what is happening, for instance, in China. The spectacular rise of China's wind and solar industries has surprised everyone, and both technologies will feature prominently in the country's next five-year plan, which is being finalised now.

Encouraging signs from China

When I attended the annual China Wind Power event in Beijing in October, I was astonished to see how in a few short years since we were "discouraged" from talking about climate change, the language has shifted to one of an "energy revolution" for China, with the China National Renewable Energy Centre's High Renewable Energy Penetration Scenario and Roadmap Study released last April featuring prominently in the discussions.

With emissions reduction as a central feature, it goes far beyond China's INDC, projecting a Chinese energy system for 2050 where non-fossil energy accounts for two thirds of the total energy supply, with renewables supplying 60% of that; and a 91% non-fossil electricity system, 85% of which is supplied by renewables. This is not formal policy, but it gives a clear direction of travel from which we can take heart.

A look through the latest Paris negotiation text shows that there is very little in it for the private sector, at least from what was available before the event. Despite analysis after analysis showing that the vast majority of the investment needed to tackle climate change must come from the private sector, the text is about government money - which is in short supply in most of the OECD these days.

It is significant that China is pitching in with climate finance, but the amounts are not significant compared with existing private-sector investment in renewables; at least not yet.

Perhaps the most useful thing to come out of the process in advance is the definition of the "emissions gap" identified by the Climate Action Tracker and others, showing what still needs to be done to meet the agreed goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 2 degsC above pre-industrial levels, and how much more needs to be done to keep it below 1.5 degsC, as a large and growing group of countries are demanding.

The negotiators and politicians in Paris need both the courage to stand up to the incumbent lobbies and the political will to put their money where their mouths are. Both seem to be somewhat lacking at present, but the renewable energy revolution is under way and unstoppable. The question is whether COP21 will help it go fast enough to save the climate.

Steve Sawyer is CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council

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