Daniel Kammen (Climate advisor to the Obama Administration)
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Agrion talks to Daniel Kammen, Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley and climate advisor to the Obama Administration, about his take on the outcome of the Copenhagen negotiations.
What did we learn from Copenhagen?
It is really important to look at why the scientific story has proven to be so far such a mismatch with the political part of the process.
First the scientific part. There has been a pretty steady downward trend in minimum summer sea ice going from around 6.5 million square kilometers down to about 500 square kilometers, a very sizable decrease. Not only is there this steady downward trend but if you weight the last couple of years’ data points you get an even bigger drop off. This is not a minor indicator of climate change. This worrisome drop-off in the last couple years, this really precipitous fall in 2007, is one of many examples of tipping points that every scientific exploration of climate change expects to see.
The path that the Obama Administration, not the House and the Senate, have us going is a path like this: by 2050 to comply with a two-degree target we would need an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, not from where we are today but from a baseline set in 1990. So more like a ninety percent reduction over the next forty years.
But the scientific community overall has done just about as poor a job as possible in conveying where we are and what the changes are. There have been a lot of efforts, Al Gore has been doing his best to tell the story, but the scientists have not figured out good ways to tell the story of what changes we expect to see during reasonable time periods. Scientists are calling them discontinuities. No ice in the arctic is a discontinuity, so clearly the scientists are not doing their full job. Not that the story has not been accurate but they have not found ways to portray what we know, to be honest about what we don’t know, but to portray the severity of the problem.
The clean, ideal path that I described where we do not hit those two degree targets, says that essentially over the next forty years we can emit not that much more than we have emitted in the last ten years alone. There is very little mainstream energy planning discussion that says we are likely to do anything like that. We are not even close.
That level of disconnect between what the science is telling you and what people are saying we need to do in terms of ecological protection means that it should not surprise us that the political process essentially went nowhere. It is simply too far apart right now. Now that certainly should not be a sign that we should stop doing anything. But what it means is that we are going to need other innovations to make sure this happens.
This level of disconnect is rarely bridged in these sorts of large negotiations. There have been a number of interesting international treaties that have done some significant things. Almost all of the ones that have done significant things have had a group of nations, not all 190-odd nations, but a smaller group coming to an agreement that works for them and then that agreement gets modified, adapted, or simply just adopted by the larger group. No such agreement existed going into Copenhagen.
So what came out of Copenhagen was a nonbinding memorandum of understanding, if you will, between the U.S. China and South Africa, that they should have a dialogue about doing something about this. In terms of bringing the science into some balance with the political process, this is the place where there has to be a dramatic breakthrough. Right now no one is composing such a breakthrough.
Is China to blame for the negotiations’ failure, as has been suggested in the press?
In a lot of the detailed negotiations and discussions, China refused to budge in significant ways. But this China story illustrates this disconnect in some very, very important ways. Remember China right now is the largest greenhouse gas emitter as a country, of course far less than us per capita.
[But] China’s wind sector has been growing by almost 30 percent a year. They plan to install 100 gigawatts by 2020. That is basically 100 big coal plants. Now China has been installing in the order of thirty to forty coal plants a year right now. So over ten years it is a small fraction of the total. But it is a dramatic change. China has developed 70 significant new wind power companies in the last six years. China’s solar industry has been growing by almost 100 percent a year in the last couple years. They produce 30 percent of all solar panels. There are some 400 odd solar companies in China. So [there is] a huge ramp up from where they were. Not a total decarbonization but a huge ramp up overall. China is also the producer of almost half of the world’s batteries for electric vehicles’ power storage. China is also a leader in installing new transmission lines.
China’s goal now is to generate 15 percent from renewable sources by 2020. That is comparable to the numbers from the United States. China, also Asia overall, invested more in clean power last year than did North America. China is also closing the dirtiest coal plants. And China has been outspending the West in building energy infrastructure significantly.
Does that mean that China is green? Absolutely not. But what it does mean is that relative to where they started, China has been doing a remarkable amount on the deployment side. Now a real worry and a place where there is a real opportunity is China’s research and development system and infrastructure. There is absolutely not a coherent effort to develop these technologies in large measures. And unfortunately we are going to have to develop lots more of these so that by the next Copenhagen there is a more positive part of the story.
China is an amazing deployer. But the climate story is not being matched by reductions. Now the U.S. is in the exact same boat. There has been a huge uptick in the amount of money spent on energy- efficiency, solar, wind, test projects on capturing carbon, etc. in the United States but we are nowhere near, not even on a path to think about that 80 percent reduction.