The future of fossil fuels

Is the use of fossil fuel inevitable in the 21st century? This question seems to be a recurring theme at this year’s UNFCCC Conference of the Parties.

At a side event last week, authors of the UNEP 2013 Bridging the Gap Report discussed the need to take more ambitious action in order to keep emissions below 1 trillion tons. During the conversation, Mónica Araya gave a moving speech citing the need for a new paradigm and the imagination to realize that reliance on fossil fuels should not be considered inevitable. She was quite clear: we make choices about the fuel sources we use. If we’re serious about reducing CO2 emissions, we need to stop burning fossil fuels.

Yet, at the same time, there are over 1.3 billion people who still don’t have access to electricity. Combined with exponential population growth, it is exceedingly difficult for governments to meet growing demand with current technologies, and the cheapest options, in many cases, are still based on traditional fossil fuels. As a result, governments continue to invest in new coal and gas power plants. This trend is especially common in developing countries, but even progressive countries, such as Germany, are building new coal powered plants. Considering the lifespan of such infrastructure, it seems fossil fuels will remain a part of our energy portfolio well into the second half of the 21st century.

David Hone highlighted this reality at the World Climate Summit today, making a case for carbon capture and storage (CCS).  CCS, the practice of pumping carbon dioxide (CO2) waste underground for disposal, has been a controversial topic at the UNFCCC negotiations for the past few years. On the one hand, it helps to mitigate climate change by reducing atmospheric levels of CO2. At the same time, it is one of the most costly means of mitigation available (roughly $50 per ton of CO2) and it allows for the propagation of dirty fuel sources that have other health, environmental, and social costs.

While it is naive to expect to be free of fossil fuels by the end of the century, I am not ready to cede greater ambition. Much of the “inevitability” of fossil fuel use is driven by economics, which in a large way is directed by policy. It becomes even more imperative, then, to develop a system that reduces energy demand while promoting investments in clean energy technology.  Yes, we need to prepare for a long slow transition away from fossil fuel, but in the meantime, we must continue to push for better alternatives. 

The German Delegation at COP, through the eyes of the USA

In one of the SustainUS domestic working groups, we have honed our focus on creating the political space for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to push forward with aggressive carbon and power plant regulations. One of the ways the EPA can design meaningful, impacting regulations is through learning from those nations already transitioning to a low-carbon economy. We are sure the EPA is already familiar with the policies of these sustainably-minded countries, but for our purposes, it is still interesting to learn about successes and failures in places like Germany (whose Energiewende seems to be the leading model for transitioning to a renewable economy), and how these delegations approach COP.

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to sit in on a meeting with a German delegate, Ilka Wagner of the Federal Ministry for Environment,Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (BMU). Ms. Wagner shared the German outlook on many of the major topics at this year’s COP.

At a high level, Wagner expressed serious hope for an outcome with adaptation. Low-lying countries and those particularly susceptible to the short-term effects of climate change have seen great media attention so far, thanks in part to a dramatic “Fast for the Climate” campaign, Yeb Saño launched, pleading for major steps forward on these issues in Warsaw (support his petition). The chief delegate of the Philippines pointed to the turmoil in his home country caused in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, in effect mobilizing massive support from civil society and observer organizations at COP (including SustainUS) rapidly.

The European Union has a goal for binding targets and international accountability on domestic climate goals. Wagner mentioned that the EU will push hard to encourage nations to make emissions pledges, if they haven’t done so already, and to follow through on implementing their commitments up to 2020. Formalizing an emissions reporting framework for both developed and developing countries under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is also extremely important.

Wagner noted that the Polish government has an interest in delivering success, and the German government especially doesn’t want a process, “where the outcome is the same every year, but we just change the name of the city.”

If you are curious for more, a European Commission memo released before COP19 echoes many of Wagner’s sentiments. SustainUS will closely follow how the EU plays a role in the development of the Durban Platform through the end of next week.

Flat Earth Society Storms the COP

When President Obama was elected in 2008, he promised America that he would take strong action on climate, and move our nation in a direction of ambitious regulation. He reaffirmed that promise in 2012. Youth, a demographic that was vital in getting President Obama elected, have yet to see this promise delivered.

At the UNFCCC Conference today, SustainUS reminded President Obama that he will be judged based on his climate legacy. Six SustainUSers made a demonstration that gained media attention in Reuters, highlighting the action the President needs to take on an executive level. Young Activists portrayed a “meeting of the Flat Earth Society”, which was comprised of climate change deniers. President Obama stormed the meeting! He announced tough EPA regulations on carbon emissions, specifically: aggressive emissions limits, timely implementation, and holding industry responsible for their harm.

Credit: Ashley Wineland/The Sierra Student Coalition

There will be serious international repercussions based on the strength of EPA regulations. The White House is responsible for setting the ambition of carbon reduction for the United States. Tough regulations can bring the US on board a 2015 treaty and send a strong signal internationally.

The UN Climate Negotiations are in their 19th year, but have yet produce an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will prevent a 2°C rise in global temperatures -- the threshold considered by many climate scientists to be the brink of disaster globally. The Warsaw negotiations are expected to pave the road for a binding international treaty in 2015, but critics say that without strong domestic action on climate first from the US, they may not be able to join in a meaningful climate treaty in 2015. Many fear this would cause a repeat of 1997 when the US did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which ultimately failed to reduce emissions by the necessary amount to limit climate change.

It has been four and a half months since President Obama’s unveiling of his Administration’s Climate Action Plan. Central to the the Climate Action Plan, President Obama announced he would be “directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants”.

Prominent US politicians such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Obama himself have called for increased ambition on action on climate change. A large study by George Mason University, states that 70 percent of the U.S. population say the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other nations do.

Youth are tired of inaction on climate change, and tired of the Flat Earth Society derailing the conversation. United States youth do not want to see climate change, we want to see change we can believe in.