Is Kyoto2 really necessary?

It has been suggested that a gobal system for controlling greenhouse gases, like Kyoto2, is not really necessary because, with some encouragement in a few industrialised countries, renewables, with conservation of energy, will become cheap enough to displace fossil fuels (see, for example, An alternative to a global climate deal may be unfolding before our eyes (PDF, Johan Lilliestam et al., Climate & Development, 2012, 1-5); see also The ‘green’ Kondratieff – or why crises can be a good thing (PDF. Allianz Global Investors)).

On the pro side:

  • With encouragement in countries like Germany and China, PV and onshore wind power are set to become so cheap that they will be chosen in preferance to coal-fired or gas-fired electricity.

  • Renewables can provide a useful way of increasing the security of energy supplies by reducing our dependence on imports of fossil fuels from potentially unreliable sources elsewhere.
  • There is increasing recognition that renewables, with conservation of energy, are a route to sustainable economic growth and employment instead of being a costly climate protection add-on to energy policy. Commercial competition between businesses and countries can drive the decarbonisation of the world's economies (as advocated by, for example, the Carbon War Room. See also Switching to a green economy could mean millions of jobs, says UN, The Guardian, 2012-05-31). 

  • Cutting subsidies for fossil fuels will go a long way to solving the problem (see, for example, Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies 'could provide half of global carbon target', The Guardian, 2012-01-19).

  • Getting international agreement and creating a global system of controls is too difficult.

On the con side:

  • Areas like aviation, space heating of buildings, the manufacture of steel and cement, and the use of fossil fuels in industrial processes, are tougher nuts to crack and there will not be significant movement until the price of fossil carbon is substantially higher than it is now.

  • Cheap PV or onshore wind power will do nothing to solve the problem of non-industrial emissions from agriculture, deforestation or the like. Proposals like those in Kyoto2 are still highly relevant.

  • Something like Jevon's paradox may operate: people may simply use the new clean sources of energy and the old dirty forms as well.

  • For competition to drive decarbonisation, we need the right price signals. We need a steadily-decreasing cap on emissions to ensure that the environmental costs of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are factored in to commercial calculations.

  • Cutting subsidies for fossil fuels will be very helpful but not sufficient in itself.

  • International agreement and global systems are possible:
    • We already have internationally agreed laws governing the movement of ships at sea, and global systems for managing the internet and international telephony.

    • When politicians recognise more fully that the climate crisis is serious (perhaps as a result of one or more climate-related disasters), then international agreement will become possible.

    • Emissions trading systems have been or are being introduced elsewhere in the world (already in China and in South Korea and Mexico, and going that way in California and Quebec) and these may coalesce into a global system. Let's hope the advantages upstream controls on fossil carbon will be recognised.

Another dash-for-gas?

The issue has a bearing on another question: should there be another dash-for-gas in the UK? With regard to that question:

On the pro side:

  • Gas is plentiful and cheap, thanks to fracking technology in the USA and elsewhere.

  • Gas-fired power plants are quick and cheap to build.
  • Gas-fired power stations produce about half the CO2 per unit of power as coal-fired power stations. By displacing coal-fired generation, gas-fired plants can cut overall emissions of CO2. The cuts can be even bigger if CCS is used.

  • Gas-fired power plants are flexible: their output can be varied easily to meet variations in demand and variations in the output from wind power and other renewables.

On the con side:

  • Emissions from gas are higher than they may superficially appear: "Methane – a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in terms of global warming – leaks from fracking sites, and is rarely captured by the gas companies because the technology to capture it costs money and they face no penalty for the leaks. A report by Scottish Widows found that these 'fugitive emissions' were enough to offset the global warming benefits of switching from coal to gas-fired power generation." (from 'Golden age of gas' threatens renewable energy, IEA warns, The Guardian, 2012-05-29).

  • There are other problems with fracking: the use of large amounts of water, and contamination of water supplies with harmful chemicals.
  • CCS has still not been demonstrated on a commercial scale. It may not be as effective or affordable as has been suggested.

  • Allowing another dash-for-gas will undermine the support that most renewables still need to bring down prices (argued by the IEA).

  • Displacing coal-fired generation in one area can lead to a glut of cheap coal elsewhere. Emissions from burning that cheap coal will offset any savings in emissions from burning gas (argued by the IEA).

Probably, the simplest way to resolve these issues is to ensure that environmental costs are properly internalised. And for emissions of methane and CO2, this points to the continuing need for a steadily-decreasing cap on emissions, as in Kyoto2.

Conclusion

Probably, we should not rely exclusively on falling prices of PV and other renewables, and commercial competition, to cut emissions. A steadily-decreasing cap on emissions, as in Kyoto2, is still needed.

Kyoto2 is a brilliant analysis. We may not get there directly via one single global agreement. But we may eventually get to something like Kyoto2 via a series of smaller reforms. Its very useful to have Kyoto2 there as a model for where we ought to be heading.