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Is the world ready to end the coal era and embrace clean energy?

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Access to electricity has transformed the world, helping countries to develop their economies, and lifting millions out of poverty. However, this success has come at a great cost: the energy sector, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, is responsible for some 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions – one of the so-called greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the Earth – and almost two-thirds of these emissions come from coal.

But, despite the United Nations calling urgently for an end to fossil fuels, hundreds of new coal-fired power stations are still being built, and hundreds more are in the pipeline. Is the world ready for a new era of clean, cheap and accessible energy for all?

Kick the coal habit, and put a price on carbon, urges UN chief

The UN chief has called for taxes to be placed on carbon emissions, an end to the trillions of dollars’ worth of estimated subsidies for fossil fuels, and for the construction of coal-fired power stations to be halted by 2020, if we are to stand a chance of ending the climate crisis.

Many countries, particularly developed economies, are starting to heed the UN’s message. However, Southeast Asia, one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world, appears to be stuck on fossil fuels as the answer to its energy needs: In November, Mr. Guterres told a meeting of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group in Thailand that coal “remains a major threat in relation to climate change”, adding that countries in Southeast Asia are some of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Asian development still fueled by coal

According to studies by the International Energy Agency, the region is expected to become a key driver of world energy trends over the next 20 years. Millions of people in Southeast Asia have gained access to electricity since 2000, and the region is on the way to achieving universal access by 2030.

The UN-backed Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), has compiled data showing that the region has the third highest number of coal power plants in the pipeline after China and India. Indonesia, Viet Nam and the Philippines have the largest coal plant pipeline of all South East Asian countries, with Malaysia and Thailand not far behind.

The wealthier Asian countries are also bankrolling coal beyond their borders: State-owned financial agencies in China, Japan, and South Korea are now, respectively, the largest sources of funding for coal plants in other countries: research from SEforALL shows that China was the largest international source international source of finance for coal, committing more than $1.7 billion in 2015/2016.

Coal is losing power

Nevertheless, the world, as a whole, is slowly moving in the right direction, and the number of plants currently being planned is falling. The amount of permits of new coal plants has dropped to record lows, and over a thousand have been cancelled,  a reflection of a tougher economic climate for coal plant developers, and the growing consensus for the need to limit global warming, and protect human health.

In November 2019, four years after the Paris Agreement, a key UN climate conference at which countries committed to step up efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures and boost climate action financing, the UN Secretary-General convened a Climate Action Summit in New York, where many nations announced beefed-up measures to combat the climate crisis, including putting limits on the amount of electricity produced from coal-based sources.

The UK, for example, is expected to completely phase out coal in the next few years, Germany – one of the world’s biggest users of coal – has agreed to stop by 2038, and eight other European Union countries have announced that they will put an end to coal use by 2030. Chile has pledged to close all of its coal-fired power stations by 2040, and South Korea will close 10 plants by 2022.

A “Powering Past Coal Alliance”, made up of 32 countries, 25 regional, provincial and municipal level governments, and 34 business members,  announced new members, including Germany and Slovakia, at the conference, committed to speeding up the transition from coal-based to clean energy, and to lead global efforts to curtail coal use.

Here comes the sun

In addition, more and more countries, and businesses, acknowledge that the use of renewable energy is not only the right thing to do for the planet, it also makes economic sense.

Technology already exists to enable the world to transition away from coal, and other fossil fuels; and also to connect the 840 million people who still don’t have access to electricity to clean, renewable energy sources. And it’s affordable.

SEforALL research shows that renewables are now the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world — cheaper than both new coal and new natural gas power – and, by 2030, wind and solar will undercut coal and gas almost everywhere.

Disconnect between words and actions

However, even with the decline in coal use, and growth in the use of renewables, the transition to clean energy is not taking place quickly enough, and there is still a big gap between countries’ climate commitments, and their planned production of fossil fuels, as demonstrated by the 2019 Production Gap report, the first of its kind, from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and research partners.

The gap is largest when it comes to coal: countries are currently planning to produce 150% more coal in 2030, than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C, and almost three times more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

“Despite more than two decades of climate policy making, fossil fuel production levels are higher than ever,” Måns Nilsson, head of the Stockholm Environment Institute, one of the organizations that produced the study, said in a press release. “This report shows that governments’ continued support for coal, oil and gas extraction is a big part of the problem. We’re in a deep hole, and we need to stop digging.”

In 2020, the UN launches a Decade of Action, to kickstart efforts to achieve the goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. When it comes to energy, the goal is to ensure affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all: the challenge for the UN, and the world, is to rapidly speed up the move towards renewables, and kick the coal habit once and for all.

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The world needs to build on the growing momentum behind carbon capture

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After years of slow progress, technologies to capture carbon emissions and store or reuse them are gaining momentum, a trend that will need to accelerate significantly for the world to achieve its energy and climate goals, according to a new special report released by the IEA today.

The report, CCUS in Clean Energy Transitions, is being launched at an IEA online event opened by Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway, whose government announced a major funding commitment this week for a new carbon capture project that can help tackle emissions from Norway and neighbouring countries.

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is the only group of technologies that contributes both to reducing emissions in key sectors directly and to removing CO2 from the atmosphere to balance the emissions that are the hardest to prevent – a crucial part of reaching the net-zero emissions goals that a growing number of governments and companies have set for themselves.

Part of the IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives Series, the new IEA report is the most comprehensive global study on CCUS to date. It assesses the state of play of CCUS technologies and maps out the evolving and expanding role they will need to play to put global emissions on a sustainable trajectory. It includes a detailed analysis of CO2 emissions from power and industrial facilities in China, Europe and the United States and potential for storing them.

“The scale of the climate challenge means we need to act across a wide range of energy technologies. Carbon capture is critical for ensuring our transitions to clean energy are secure and sustainable,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

“In order to develop and deploy carbon capture and storage as a technology for the future we need investments in solutions and facilities in many regions and countries,” said Prime Minister Solberg. “CCUS will be necessary on a global scale if we are to meet the Paris Agreement. And we must start now.”

“Norway has been a global leader in researching, developing and implementing carbon capture technologies, as demonstrated by its major funding commitment this week to the impressive Longship project, which can help not just Norway but other European countries reduce their emissions,” Dr Birol said. “The IEA is delighted and honoured that Prime Minister Solberg is taking part in the launch of our new report that will help inform policy-making on CCUS around the world.”

Plans for more than 30 commercial CCUS facilities have been announced globally in the last three years. And projects now nearing a final investment decision represent an estimated potential investment of around USD 27 billion – more than double the investment planned in 2017. This portfolio of projects is increasingly diverse and would double the amount of CO2 captured globally.

The report sets out the four main ways that CCUS technologies contribute to clean energy transitions:

  • Tackling emissions from existing energy infrastructure such as power and industrial plants;
  • Providing a solution for some of the most challenging emissions from heavy industries like cement and chemicals, as well as from aviation;
  • Offering a cost-effective pathway for low-carbon hydrogen production in many regions;
  • Removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Although CCUS facilities have been operating for decades in certain industries like natural gas and fertilisers, they are still at an early stage of development in key sectors such as cement. These are the areas where CCUS technologies are particularly important for tackling emissions because of a lack of alternatives.

 “Action from governments will be essential for establishing a sustainable and viable market for CCUS,” Dr Birol said. “But industry must also embrace the opportunity. No sector will be unaffected by clean energy transitions – and for some, including heavy industry, the value of CCUS is inescapable. As our new report demonstrates, the IEA is committed to leading CCUS analysis and policy advice worldwide – and to bringing together governments, companies and other key players to work together to achieve our shared energy and climate goals.”

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World Economic Forum and IRENA Partner for Sustainable Energy Future

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image credit: IRENA

The President of the World Economic Forum, Børge Brende, and the Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Francesco La Camera, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) alongside the 75th session of the UN General Assembly and the Sustainable Development Impact Summit.

The Forum’s Energy Transition Index has found that, without urgent stakeholder action, COVID-19 will compromise the transition to clean energy. And IRENA’s Post-COVID-19 Recovery Agenda shows that while renewables have proven their resilience throughout the crisis, targeted policy action and investment in energy transition can leverage socio-economic benefits while staying on course towards a fully decarbonised system by 2050. This MoU brings together two international organizations to collaborate and advance a sustainable energy future through the adoption of new technology, financing and ambitious policy frameworks. It aims to advance the necessary global energy transition, decarbonise hard to abate sectors, scale up the deployment of clean technologies and enhance the energy literacy of decision-makers and the public.

“Countries need to significantly raise their level of commitment towards environmental sustainability, leveraging diverse policies, technologies and financing options,” Brende said. “Formalising this ongoing partnership during the Sustainable Development Impact Summit is an important step in strengthening the mission of our organisations. It brings together the knowledge, insight and innovation expertise of IRENA with the Forum’s global network to ensure these higher commitments are realised in the near term.”

“The energy transformation is at the heart of economic recovery,” La Camera said. “Renewable energy offers a way to carbon neutrality by mid-century, aligning short-term policy and investment decisions with our medium- and long-term objectives of the Sustainable Development Agenda and 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. International cooperation is vital to support business and the public sector in their efforts to reach our climate goals. This reinforced partnership combines IRENA’s leading expertise on energy transition with the Forum’s proven record of success in driving change through public-private dialogue in pursuit of a global energy system that is fit for the future.”

“The Forum and IRENA have worked together for several years to support the energy transition,” said Roberto Bocca, Head of Shaping the Future of Energy & Materials, World Economic Forum. “This MoU strengthens the collaboration between our organisations to further accelerate and shape the trajectory of the energy transition ensuring it is sustainable, inclusive and supports the economic recovery following COVID-19.”

The past decade has seen rapid transformations as countries move towards clean energy generation, supply and consumption. Coal-fired power plants have been retired, as reliance on natural gas and emissions-free renewable energy sources increases. Incremental gains have been made from carbon-pricing initiatives.

The current state of the sector is described in the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index 2020. It benchmarks the energy systems of 115 economies, highlighting the leading players in the race to net-zero emissions, as well as those with work to do. This year’s report flagged that COVID-19 could threaten the rate at which economies adopt more sustainable power. Sweden tops the overall ranking for the third consecutive year as the country most ready to transition to clean energy, followed by Switzerland and Finland. There has been little change in the top 10 since the last report, which demonstrates the energy stability of these developed nations, although the gap with the lowest-ranked countries is closing. The United Kingdom and France are the only two G20 economies in the top 10.

The Forum’s annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit brings together almost 2,000 leaders from around the world to scale up solutions that address the economic, social and environmental challenges of our time. Heads of State, CEOs, and leaders from civil society engage in dialogue to initiate, accelerate and scale-up entrepreneurial solutions that advance sustainable development goals. The summit takes place virtually from 21-24 September.

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The Netherlands is well prepared to reduce CO2 emissions

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The Netherlands is taking a well-balanced approach to its plans for a rapid transition to a carbon-neutral economy that will support strong growth and energy security, according to a new energy policy review by the International Energy Agency.

To drive this ambitious shift, the Netherlands has focused its energy and climate policy on cutting greenhouse emissions, with targets to reduce emissions by 49% by 2030 and by 95% by 2050 from 1990 levels. In June 2019, it adopted a national Climate Agreement that was developed through a process involving diverse groups from across Dutch society that worked together to define policies and measures aimed at achieving these targets.

“The Netherlands’ Climate Agreement shows broad social and political commitment to its energy transition and serves as an excellent example of how collaborative policy-making can lay the framework for ambitious targets,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “The IEA looks forward to supporting the government as it implements its plans.”

The Netherlands faces notable challenges, the IEA policy review highlights, since its economy remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels and has a concentration of energy- and emission-intensive industries. The IEA report welcomes the steps the government is taking to address these challenges. These include the introduction of carbon pricing for industrial emissions and a competitive subsidy programme that supports a wide variety of emission reduction technologies. It also applauds the government’s leadership in supporting electric vehicles through incentives to purchase them and significant investments in charging infrastructure.

“I congratulate the Netherlands for developing a broad policy framework with robust measures to drive emission reductions in all sectors,” Dr Birol said. “The balance of ambitious targets and competitive support measures will help drive a cost-effective energy transition.”

The IEA report highlights new energy security challenges the Netherlands is facing. In line with its climate targets and in response to safety concerns over earthquakes caused by natural gas production, the government plans to end production from the Groningen gas field by mid-2022. Gas from Groningen covers a large share of the Netherlands’ heating and industrial energy demand and is a key source of regional gas supply.

The government is taking firm measures to reduce natural gas demand, both domestically and in cooperation with neighbouring countries. At the same time, it is taking a leading role in developing a market for low-carbon hydrogen to partly replace natural gas and drive emission reductions in hard-to-decarbonise sectors like industry and heavy transportation. This is complemented by support for carbon capture and storage, which is also aimed at lowering industrial emissions.

“The Netherlands has a clear vision for reducing its dependence on natural gas while protecting energy security,” Dr Birol said. “In addition, its commendable leadership on low-carbon hydrogen will help drive cost reductions that are needed for this important technology to play a key role in accelerating clean energy transitions around the world.”

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