The Katowice summit has been a resounding failure
In a media dominated age, no international conference is allowed to end in failure. The Katowice climate summit is no exception. Michal Kurtyka, the Polish President of the conference, admitted that finding global consensus on the issues discussed at the summit had been “politically fraught”, but claimed nonetheless that “through this package, you have made 1,000 little steps forward together”.
The truth is the exact opposite. The Katowice summit was a resounding failure. The size of the failure has to be measured against the urgency of the challenge it refused to face. A bare six weeks earlier, the IPCC had warned that the world had to reduce net carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and bring them down to zero by 2055, if it wanted to keep the planet livable in the 21st century. But the conference turned its back on the warning.
There was no agreement on financing, and little of it even on the verification methods to be used for assessing claims of carbon reduction. even There was no consensus even on whether the conference should accept a reduction of the limit to global warming by 2100 from 2 degrees Celsius to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Why has the world buried its head in the sand ? The short answer is that it does not know what else to do. Nearly everyone is blaming US President Donald Trump, but his denial of climate change is only a brusque way of saying that he would rather not know about something that he cannot prevent.
Emission reductions of this magnitude seem impossible because they can only be achieved by a rapid shift out of fossil fuels. But no one knows what to replace them with. This is not because renewable energy technologies that draw their power from the sun do not exist, but because none of the 24 climate summits held since 1994 ever discussed technology.
The job of finding alternatives to fossil fuels was left to the free interplay of market forces. A Clean Development Mechanism was set up under the Kyoto Protocol to encourage the search for alternatives. But in the first 10 years of its existence it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1.58 billion tonnes. In the same period, human-induced CO2 emissions increased by 10 billion tonnes.
Today it is apparent that the market has led us astray. The only renewable energy technologies that it has promoted vigorously are wind and solar photovoltaic power. This despite the common knowledge that these can only limit and not replace fossil fuels because they can neither supply guaranteed, round the clock power, nor the process heat that industry consumes in prodigious quantities.
Had technology, and not target setting, been the focus of COP summits, the world would have known that technologies that can harness the energy of the sun for meeting all the three needs — power, heat and transport fuels — already exist and have been now refined to the point where they are fully competitive with fossil fuels.
The two that can do so virtually without limit are Concentrated Solar Thermal (CSP), as opposed to photovoltaic (SPV) power, and biomass gasification, as opposed to fermentation. Far from being new, these have been in sporadic use for between four and ten decades. The first CSP power station that fed electricity into the grid came up in California in the 1980s. The first plant that turned municipal solid waste into methanol — a clean and superior transport fuel — came on stream in the USA in 1922!
CSP power stations solved the problem of storing the energy of the sun at night in the late 1980s. The first power station to supply round-the-clock power to a small town near Seville in Spain came on stream in 2011 and has been doing so for seven years. The cost of generation from CSP plants has fallen almost as fast as that from photovoltaic plants. The most recent power purchase agreements for such plants have been signed in Chile and Dubai for 5 to 6. 7 cents per kwh. That is half the average cost of power in the US in 2017, which was 12.06 cents.
What is more important, these are lower than the cost of power generation by new coal based power plants. So the way is now open for more governments to join the 30 countries have already agreed to put a ban the establishment of new coal based power plants.
Most of the world’s attention has been focused so far on power generation. But there are now several proven, versatile, technologies that can also produce transport fuels and petrochemicals from literally any crop residue or waste biomass. They do this by first gasifying the biomass to obtain a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called synthesis gas, and then synthesise these into the desired fuel or petrochemical, using appropriate catalysts.
Unlike solar thermal power, these technologies have not so far got off the ground because the investment in them, that has been planned repeatedly since the early 2000s, has been repeatedly postponed or abandoned because of steep, albeit temporary, falls in the price of oil and natural gas. These have made it impossible for the investors to get the long term purchase price agreements that will make their investment secure.
To save the future, the world does not need carbon dioxide capture and removal. It does not need to pump sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to reduce sunlight. It does not need hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies for expensive renewable energy technologies. All it needs is a ban on the setting up of new coal-based power plants, and stable price agreements with producers of synthetic fuels that are linked to the long term average cost of oil and gas. These will suffice to make private capital flow as spontaneously into solar thermal and biomass energy projects as it is doing into wind and solar PV projects today.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former member of energy panel of the World Commission on Environment and Development ( 1985-88) and the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming , and to Fear
The views expressed are personal