My Vision for the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All (2014-2024)

Ward Snoek

It is a great privilege for an energy engineer and member of the Model United Nations Society Belgium to address the UN about the matter the closest to my heart. The future of our energy system and its implications on climate change and sustainable development is one of the most important and pressing matters at hand. The problem's specific nature calls for a global solution. Therefore, this is exactly the crisis for which UN has been established. UN efforts to take responsibility are admirable but not yet sufficient.

On the matter of energy policy, the international community is at a crossroad. Declaring 2014-2024 as 'the decade of sustainable energy for all' in the General Assembly is this crossroad's signpost to the right path. Although passionately spreading the idea of energy and environmental sustainability, these words unfortunately remain empty if they cause no action. Governments, the private sector and civil society not only need to be shown the way but they also need to be strongly incentivized to follow it. An ambitious, effective, and globally enforced climate treaty is crucial if we want to avoid an environmental catastrophe. Indeed, there is a great deal of good work to do in the UNFCCC.

An ambitious, effective, and globally enforced climate treaty is crucial if we want to avoid an environmental catastrophe.

The Importance of a Global Climate Treaty

The first main focus of the 2014-2024 energy transition program should be to succeed where we failed in Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban and Doha: enforcing a globally ratified climate treaty.

In a world where every country would have its own individual emissions abatement program, emission reductions would be limited to only compensate the self-inflicted damage. This situation emerges as a Nash equilibrium. If a country would decide on greater efforts, while not backed by a treaty, its neighbors will act as free riders. In the end the country will reduce its efforts again until an equilibrium is reached. In other words, even when consequences of climate change become tangible within our societies, countries will keep polluting each other and the necessary reduction targets will never be attained. However, if an international treaty is enforced, neighbors will agree not to pollute each other anymore and the marginal benefit of emission abatement rises. Equaling marginal benefit with marginal cost gives a new economic equilibrium which entices a much greater, global reduction effort. The figure below shows the economics behind this reasoning.

What should the 'International Climate Treaty contain?

- A clear timeframe on emissions reduction and where to find reductions.
- Recommendation of a global emission trading scheme or carbon taxation.
- Region specific guidance for the transition into renewable energy sources.
- Countering the increase of fossil fuel resource base (shale gas).
- Discussion of the place for nuclear energy in the energy transition.
- Promotion of end use efficiency and the electrification of life.
- A comprehensive plan to protect the vulnerable and empowering the poor during the energy transition.

A Timeframe for Carbon Emission Reduction

Once CO2 is emitted, it remains in the atmosphere for a century. Earth's temperature rise depends on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. This means that even if we manage to stabilize emissions, temperature will keep rising. It is therefore crucial to strongly decrease emissions. Our world leaders must decide by how much, based on the following questions: 'What is the optimal reduction level, leading to both an acceptable burden on global, national and local economies, and an 'acceptable' amount of climate change effects?' For instance: from which point on does the rising amount of climate refugees, the increasing damage from natural disasters and the disappearance of small island states counterweigh the economic potential of burning fossil fuels? It is hereby very important not to make U-turn decisions, but to prepare a sustainable transition. For instance: immediately quitting oil would mean economic disaster, with all the subsequent effects and potential political instability.

It is hereby very important not to make U-turn decisions, but to prepare a sustainable transition.

The IEA has provided a reduction timeframe that can serve as a valuable example of what we need to do to limit Earth's temperature rise to the intentionally agreed 2°C or the equivalent CO2 concentration of 450 ppm. This is the scenario to follow if we want to stick to the Copenhagen intentions. We conclude from this graph that 2014-2024 is the time to start acting.

The IEA also suggests, at a global level, how to achieve the reductions needed by 2030. The biggest chunk of emissions reduction should be found in energy efficiency, followed by renewables, biofuels, nuclear energy and carbon capture/storage. Of course, these measures are to be determined on a national level. The potential for renewable energy sources or nuclear energy is very country-specific.

A Global Emission Trading Scheme & Carbon Taxation

It does not matter where CO2 is emitted, but it does matter where emissions are reduced. For countries with a very efficient industry, it is more expensive to reduce emissions than it is in countries where one is still inefficiently burning coal. Reduction efforts therefore must be allocated to industries where it is most cost efficient. Efficient countries can make reduction investments in inefficient countries. Buying clean air does make sense, if the money is used for emissions reduction at the seller's side.

Actually, a spot market of CO2 emission rights has the same effect. A legal cap on emission quantity is enforced. Emitters need to decide to reduce emission or buy extra emission certificates. As a consequence, the companies that can reduce most cost effectively will do so, while the others will prefer to buy emission rights at spot market prices. The system has proven to work in the EU. However, the economic crisis made the spot price of emission rights crash because of a recession-driven reduction in emissions, instead of the intended efficiency-driven reduction in emissions. CO2 taxes are not that much dependent on economic volatility.

CO2 taxes or emission trading schemes have the same economic effect; an increase of producers surplus of low carbon energy generation technologies like renewables or nuclear energy. They encourage investments in renewables and nuclear, and discourage coal and gas. The following graph illustrates this principle for liberalized energy markets.

Transition to Renewable Energy Sources & Limiting the Fossil Fuel Resource Base

With the right economic and regulatory frameworks, we can produce more renewable energy. Eventually, renewable energy sources (RES) are the only true sustainable forms of energy production. By 2024, it is realistic to achieve a substantial growth in RES, but it would be foolish to expect it will be enough to tackle climate problems. The obstructing factors of RES are mainly of the techno-economical kind:

  • High investment cost: RES still have high investment costs. Therefore energy prices need to be high enough in order to achieve reasonable payback times. This conflicts with the expected problems in 'energy poverty'.
  • Intermittency: RES do not always run. They're often dependent on external conditions. In order to have 100 percent RES coverage, much more than the 100 percent of capacity must be installed. How will we react to sudden energy overproduction and shortages?
  • Technologies are region specific: it makes more sense to put photovoltaic in Spain than in Denmark, where offshore wind farms have more potential.
  • Grid equipment: To deal with the intermittency problems, we need an electricity grid that can act to the imminent needs of the energy market. This includes large amounts of data exchange, energy storage, increased levels of security and interconnections between countries and areas. This is what we call a smart grid.

For the previous reasons, it is absolutely crucial that the transition to RES is accompanied by the development of smart grids. Reaching the high percentages of energy supply with RES will be impossible without the development of the supporting technologies.

A threat to renewable energy sources as a backstop for fossil fuel technologies is the increase in resource base of fossil fuels. The shale gas issue has led to a supply increase in fossil fuels, forcing coal prices to historically low levels, which is one of the biggest drivers of global warming.

The Necessity and Acceptability of Nuclear Energy

Dogmatically renouncing nuclear energy as a part of the energy transition is a mistake. After the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy has globally been criminalized by popular media. Political leaders have found electoral ground for nuclear phase outs, a U-turn decision based on incomplete or wrong information. It is unwise to write nuclear energy off before experts (e.g. UNSCEAR or WHO) got the chance to communicate the results of their investigations. Therefore, after publication of UNSCEAR's findings about the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy should be re-included in the debate on how to produce large amounts of energy at almost zero carbon emission and at low cost for the consumer.

Of course, the risks of nuclear proliferation remain imminent and that is why we need to further empower the IAEA with the means to manage and monitor nuclear installations all over the world. Also the NPT and the NTBT need to be promoted, respected and protected.

Protecting the Weak, Empowering the Poor

To conclude, climate change is not the only pressing issue when it comes to energy. Energy poverty is a matter at hand. Access to energy in developing countries is one of the main necessities to facilitate economic growth and bring welfare to a country. It is therefore crucial that these matters get a prominent place in the UN's plan for sustainable energy for all.

Yours Truly,
Ward Snoeck

Ward Snoeck was a finalist in the annual Global Energy Essay Contest 2013

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