“It’s like a race against time: on one hand climate change is occurring slowly, on the other, the technology is changing rapidly and making renewables cheaper and cheaper.”
Professor Carlo Carraro, director of the International Centre for Climate Change Governance (ICCG), dean of the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice from 2009-2014, gives an overview of the Paris Climate Change Agreement following the announcement by the United States administration of the country’s withdrawal from the Agreement and on the occasion of Cop23, the UN climate conference that takes place in Bonn from 6 to 17 November.
When the Trump Administration decided to step back from the 2015 Paris Agreement many said that American businesses would not follow suit because now the direction is already well-established. Is this really the case?
Yes, more or less it is, also because the Paris Agreement will enter into force in 2020, after the end of the Trump administration’s mandate. Therefore, also from a formal point of view the USA can return to participate in the Agreement without losing one day of validity. Moreover, the USA administration has said that it will achieve its targets anyway and it is reasonable to believe this because they are already well ahead of schedule in fulfilling the goal of reducing emissions by 26% by 2025. However, some financial consequences of the US withdrawal are important: Washington will not be contributing to the Green Climate Fund to support the reduction of emissions in developing countries. This will have significant political consequences because many emerging economies’ commitments are closely tied to the financial support from developed countries. If these financial pledges are not fully met, these countries may feel a legitimate justification not to respect their own commitments. Let’s not forget, however, that the developing countries contribute only a very small share of the total emissions: the 20 largest countries are responsible for 85% of the total.
China too seems to have made a decisive commitment to shift to renewable sources of energy.
Yes, for domestic reasons: the level of pollution in the big cities and the production of energy from coal is no longer sustainable. In the transition to a cleaner and less expensive form of energy, solar represents the best alternative, so it is not necessary to first pass through the phases of using oil and gas. From a political point of view the question of the environment is practically the only topic that can be discussed freely in China. The media have been highly critical of the local and regional administrations and the government has used the issue of respecting the environment as a means of winning approval.
The technology factor seems to be the most important: today renewables are getting cheaper.
It’s true, they are already cheaper in Europe where solar energy is now competitive with other forms of energy. In the USA they aren’t quite there yet because the cost of gas is much lower, but the estimates forecast that it will be the case in in 3-4 years. On this side of the Atlantic already auctions are being announced for the supply of energy in which the provision from solar energy is cheaper. The technology factor is decisive.
For example the costs of storing electric energy are falling drastically.
Yes, and this is an essential change: without storage solar will always be incomplete and will need to rely on gas as a backup, but if storage becomes cheaper and on a larger scale, as Tesla is trying to achieve, then solar will completely replace fossil fuels, at competitive prices.
China is accelerating, India has said that from 2030 it will ban the sale of petrol or diesel-powered cars, even France and Great Britain want to speed up the process. When do you think CO2 will be eliminated from the energy mix?
In order to completely eliminate it will take a long time, even if it is not easy to predict the consequences of the technological acceleration that we have been talking about. If that continues at today’s pace, my answer to your question would be not before 2050-2060. The goal that we have set on an international level is to arrive at less than 20% of the energy mix produced from fossil fuels by the middle of the century and that is quite realistic.
COP23 is starting in Bonn: what are your expectations?
At COP 23 all the countries will confirm their own commitments, without clashes with the USA. It will be an open-ended conference, without important decisions to be made, however, in 2018 when the revision of the Paris Agreement is due, each country will have to say whether it has fulfilled its commitments or is even willing to revise them and set more ambitious goals. The consequences of president Trump’s decision will be felt more within the country because a series of financial grants for research into renewables will be halted, even though the federal structure of the United States means that many decisions are made at state level rather than federal level. Many states, such as California and Massachusetts will continue in the same direction as before.
Few remember that 2015, in addition to the Paris Agreements, was also the year that the Sustainable Development Goals Charter, part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, was signed. How are we proceeding on that front? Will the goals be achieved?
This is a more complicated question, the programme that countries are working towards is a very ambitious one and the goals are numerous and diverse, ranging from education to growth, health and energy. Designing a system of governance to monitor these goals is, therefore, very difficult, even though the deadlines are not far away, in 2030. Today many countries are lagging behind in defining the criteria for measuring the achievement of individual goals.
Let’s talk now about the circular economy, a genuine new economic model that aims to transform waste into high value resources through technology, processes and creative business models. Is another type of economy possible?
In reality it is just a return: the circular economy was in fashion many years ago, it is positive that it is back because at that time the idea emerged perhaps ahead of its time. Now the technology is making it possible: the changes that produce environmental benefits are numerous and are much less costly for companies. Also there is an important change in the awareness of the public. Just think of the case of palm oil, pressure from consumers has almost put an end to its production.