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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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Solar power charges pandemic recovery for indigenous farmers in Viet Nam

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Overcoming adversity has long been the stock in trade of Do Thi Phuong, a 42-year-old mother of two living in a small village in Viet Nam’s lush Lao Cai province. As the primary breadwinner in her family of six, Phuong is accustomed to being a rock for her family in hard times. Years ago, landslides wiped out all but four out of 42 household rice fields in the village, yet Phuong managed to provide.

But COVID-19 has tested her resolve like nothing else.

Phuong’s village has traditionally been home to indigenous groups that farm the land. Many in the community raise chicken and pigs – each household maintains between 1,000-5,000 chickens, from which they derive their primary income.

Over the last few years, livestock production, particularly poultry, has been one of the fastest-growing sectors in agriculture in Viet Nam. And though it accounts for the country’s second-largest share of meat production, 89.6% of poultry production1 is led by smallholder farmers, who are far more vulnerable to climate change, natural disasters and unexpected shocks – like a pandemic.

Viet Nam has recorded just over 1,000 cases of COVID-19, but the economic repercussions of prolonged lockdowns have had a profound impact on rural markets.

Phuong paints a bleak picture: “The village roads that were usually busy with many traders coming to buy chickens, fish and cinnamon products, were empty,” she says.

For her family, this meant an income loss of 60-70%.

Before the pandemic, Phuong’s household would raise a batch of around 3,000 chickens, and at the time of sale, traders would shell out VND65,000 (about US$2.8) per kilogram. Raising three batches a year would net the family about US$6500.

When the crisis hit, travel restrictions and social distancing rules made it challenging for Phuong to sell her chickens. Chicken prices crashed. Phuong returned home every night with barely VND500,000-60,0000 (US$21-26), just enough to cover feed costs for the birds.

Her family’s electricity costs also doubled, with unsold chickens continuing to require food and electricity and the children spending most of their time at home. Their meagre income was stretched to its limits, even after cutting expenses and taking out a loan.

Empowering farmers

The turnaround came via a powerful patron: solar energy. Through UNEP’s EmPower project, Phuong is procuring solar-powered chicken incubation and ventilation equipment. The monthly electricity cost for heating, ventilation and lighting for chicken rearing will be almost zero with the solar system. EmPower and its partner CHIASE are helping Phuong to develop her business plan and to select and procure the most suitable equipment. Phuong is also receiving support to access a loan from provincial Vietnam’s Women’s Union.

It is not only Phuong who has benefitted. The green chicken coops are scalable, bringing in quick cash flows and helping struggling communities bounce back from the economic crisis. EmPower is supporting around 300 women farmers across Viet Nam to harness the benefits of renewable energy and establish new business models for livestock rearing, agro and herbal product processing, and noodles, fish, and fruit drying.

Benefits for indigenous populations

Indigenous women especially are benefitting. While often the primary breadwinners in their households, their voices often remain unheard where policy decisions are being made.

“By giving indigenous women a stake in renewable energy development, EmPower is helping to ensure that their voices are being heard,” says Annette Wallgren, Programme Officer for Gender and Climate Change at UNEP’s Office for Asia and the Pacific.

“Renewable energy livelihoods and enterprises at the local level will be critical to helping communities bounce back from this pandemic. We must also be aware of the needs and solutions that indigenous women can bring to the renewable energy sector, as custodians of the land and change-makers in their communities.”

Some positive progress has been seen on that front. Viet Nam’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement included a section on gender equality and prioritizing the mitigation of risks for vulnerable communities.

For Phuong, the new technology is a sign of hope. “I hope that I can use solar energy to save on the cost of chicken production and I hope it will help my family to recover from COVID-19,” she says.

UN Environment

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IEA: take urgent action to cut methane emissions from oil and gas sector

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Methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry fell by an estimated 10% in 2020 as producers slashed output in response to the historic shock of the Covid-19 crisis, the International Energy Agency said today, warning that these emissions could rebound strongly without greater action by companies, policy makers and regulators.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) and makes a major contribution to global warming. According to the IEA’s 2021 update of its Methane Tracker, oil and gas operations worldwide emitted more than 70 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere last year. This is broadly equivalent to the total energy-related CO2 emissions from the entire European Union.

The new IEA analysis indicates that a large part of the drop in methane emissions in 2020 occurred not because companies were taking more care to avoid methane leaks from their operations, but simply because they were producing less oil and gas. As such, there is clearly a risk that this downward trend will be reversed by an increase in production to fuel a rebound in global economic activity.

“The immediate task now for the oil and gas industry is to make sure that there is no resurgence in methane emissions, even as the world economy recovers, and that 2019 becomes their historical peak. There is no good reason to allow these harmful leaks to continue, and there is every reason for responsible operators to ensure that they are addressed,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

“Alongside ambitious efforts to decarbonise our economies, early action on methane emissions will be critical for avoiding the worst effects of climate change. There has never been a greater sense of urgency about this issue than there is today, said Dr Birol. “To help accelerate these efforts, the IEA is today releasing a ‘how-to’ guide that governments and regulators can use to bring down methane emissions from oil and gas operations.”

IEA analysis highlights that reducing methane emissions is very cost-effective for oil and gas companies. Unlike CO2, there is already a price for methane everywhere in the world – the price of natural gas. This means the costs of improving operations or making repairs to prevent leaks can often be paid for by the value of the additional gas that is brought to market.

“We believe that industry must act, visibly and quickly,” Dr Birol said. “But there is also a strong role for government policies; to incentivise early action by companies, push for transparency and improvements in performance, and support innovation in getting results.”

The new IEA report, Driving Down Methane Leaks from the Oil and Gas Industry: A Regulatory Roadmap and Toolkit, offers a step-by-step guide for anyone trying develop or to update regulation on methane. Its advice draws on analysis of how more than 50 countries, states or provinces – from the United States to Nigeria, from Iraq to China and Russia – have tackled methane emissions from a regulatory perspective.

“In this crucial year for climate action leading up to COP26 in Glasgow in November, this is the moment for governments to raise ambitions not only on CO2 but also on methane,” Dr Birol said. “One important avenue, especially for countries with large oil and gas sectors, will be to include commitments on methane in their new or updated pledges in advance of the COP meeting. This is also the moment for companies to put all their weight behind this effort.”

The case for action is not just environmental or reputational. There are increasing signs that consumers are starting to look carefully at the emissions profile of different sources of gas when making decisions on what to buy. A gas producer without a credible story on methane abatement is also one that is taking commercial risks.

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Priorities for improving diversity and inclusion in the energy sector

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Prominent energy figures from around the world took part in a virtual dialogue last month on ways to accelerate progress on diversity and inclusion in energy. The event was co-hosted by Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director; Ambassador Madeleine Chenette, the Permanent Representative of Canada to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); and the Clean Energy, Education and Empowerment International Initiative (C3E International).

The C3E International Initiative, under the IEA Technology Collaboration Programme and the Clean Energy Ministerial, aims to enable greater gender diversity in clean energy professions, recognising that transitions to a clean energy future will need to harness all possible talent to succeed.

Participants from across the energy sector took part in the event on 2 December 2020 to share perspectives and insights on what really matters in the industry. Dr Birol emphasised that diversity and inclusion were priorities for his modernisation agenda for the IEA because “decision-making benefits from the strength of diverse perspectives.” He noted that the share of women in leadership positions at the IEA had grown from 16% in 2015 to 38% today. Dr Birol said he was “delighted that the virtual dialogue represented voices from across the IEA family, reflecting the ‘all fuels and all technologies’ approach of the Agency.”

Highlighting that women’s participation and representation in the energy sector is far below those in other comparable sectors, Ambassador Chenette set out the moral, political and strategic imperatives for accelerating progress. She emphasised that both high-level and personal leadership are critical for overcoming slow progress, and thanked Dr Birol for his leadership in emphasising the need to make economic recoveries from the Covid-19 crisis sustainable.

Empowering women in clean energy transitions is one way to help achieve sustainable recoveries, Ambassador Chenette said, calling for greater efforts to embrace the principle of “what gets meseaured, gets done.” She noted that “it is crucial that we all recognise the economic, environmental and social benefits that gender equality delivers.”

Elbia Gannoum, CEO of ABEEólica, the Brazilian wind energy association, said that “across the energy sector in Brazil, there is an urgency building – companies are searching for solutions on how to make the shift” to harness the benefits of diversity and inclusion. Due to the growing demand for resources and tools, Ms Gannoum announced the creation of the Energia da Transformação platform, which plans to boost inclusion and diversity through the Brazilian energy sector based on collaboration, knowledge sharing and raising awareness.

A data-driven approach is essential for accelerating progress across industry. Laura McGee, founder and CEO of Diversio, a Canada-based company that provides an intelligence platform to measure, track and improve diversity and inclusion, said that the “energy sector is in the middle of the pack compared to some sectors, and could achieve rapid progress by learning from other industries.” Data-driven diagnostics are critical for avoiding missteps and allocating resources to targeted pain points, she added.

Lyu Fang, a senior engineer at the Electrical Engineering Institute at the China Academy of Sciences, shared her personal journey from the start of her career in remote solar PV stations in China to eventually holding leadership positions in the country’s huge renewables industry. Today, Ms Fang is Secretary General for the PV Committee of the China Green Supply Chain Alliance and C3E International China Global Ambassador. She highlighted that China’s climate ambitions offer many growth opportunities in clean energy through “rising sun industries.” She said these should be harnessed to accelerate women’s participation and representation in energy.

Strengthening gender diversity in the energy industry requires unrelenting long-term efforts to boost inclusion. Joel Couse, Special Advisor to the IEA, highlighted that the energy industry faces challenges in finding and retaining talented staff in a competitive global market, including to seize the opportunities of clean energy transitions. On the supply side, boosting the number of women entering STEM programmes remains a priority for achieving gender-balanced recruitment. However, getting women into energy careers is not enough, he said, adding that the industry needs to be actively supporting women to progress past the experience hump before caring responsibilities limit their opportunities for certain types of operational jobs. A key challenge is shifting mind-sets and addressing harmful stereotypes about job roles and advancement opportunities that unnecessarily hold women and men back across the talent pipeline, Mr Couse said. Setting quantitative objectives and dates helps focus efforts to make progress.

Leading energy figures call for action

Mechthild Wörsdörfer, IEA Director of Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks who leads the Agency’s Gender Diversity Task Force, concluded the virtual dialogue, thanking the participants for driving change and reiterating that the IEA Gender Initiative is focussed on bringing data-driven solutions to the table.

In 2020, the IEA Gender Initiative started work on delivering the mandate set by Ministers from IEA Member Countries on equal opportunities in the energy sector. The Agency began by collecting better disaggregated data on gender and energy.

Strengthening collaboration is key, with the IEA and OECD working together to collect data on women in employment, entrepreneurship and decision‑making roles in the energy sector, and developing indicators on the gender of inventors of energy technologies, which will be published in 2021.

The initiative has determined that there is a lack of good and comparable data on gender trends in the energy sector, and also a strong need to improve methodologies, which is why the IEA accepted the role of Coordinator for C3E International’s knowledge and data collection work stream.

The IEA will also conduct a survey of members of the IEA Energy Business Council to develop a baseline on existing corporate practices. The findings and analysis from the survey will be shared in the coming months.

The Agency is also exploring how to integrate gender diversity into its regular analytical work, such as the World Energy Outlook, the measuring of energy efficiency, and through the Clean Energy Transitions Programme, which supports key partner countries in developing and implementing policies. This includes planning a policy package on implementing energy efficiency measures in India, which will impact a predominantly female workforce. The IEA is also prioritising new work on people-centred clean energy transitions, which will also include analysis on gender dimensions.

To share these learnings and insights, and to develop a mutual understanding of the evidence base and what works, the IEA will keep bringing together government, industry and civil society stakeholders to review data and analysis, and to identify priority actions.

Looking ahead, with the help of partners and governments within the IEA family and C3E International, the IEA Gender Initiative can help to mainstream diversity and inclusion in energy policy-making. The IEA Gender Initiative aims to develop a stronger understanding of gender balances throughout the energy sector and to shape the priorities for policy action in future decision-making. The initiative will deliver its first progress report in 2021.

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