14 Mar 2017

The positive momentum gained from the ratification of the Paris Agreement last year is at risk from high-profile political upheavals. However, emergent technology could just be that silver bullet to push an energy transition and global collaboration on tackling climate change forward.

On 4 November 2016, the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions raised hopes that governments around the world would treat the issue of climate change with more urgency and honour their commitments to emissions reduction.

Unfortunately, that hope was dashed soon after Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, with all references to climate change purged from the White House website. In its place, Trump pledged to eliminate harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan, effectively discarding Obama's environmental policies.

Trump wasn't the first. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change shortly after assuming leadership in July 2016. The U.K. government's website says it is now part of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

This symbolic change and the impending Brexit have raised questions over the U.K.'s future climate change policies. European Union regulations played an essential role in setting the standards of the U.K.'s environmental laws. Furthermore, the reduction target under the Paris Agreement is a joint one for all member countries. It remains unclear how the U.K.'s share will be reassessed or redistributed to the other members.

Technology not politics is the game changer

Will the Paris Agreement become a repeat of the Kyoto Protocol: idealistic in nature but difficult to implement due to politics?

Scott Valentine, Associate Professor of Environment and Energy Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, believes we would be in for a rocky road if diplomatic goodwill was the centrepiece for change: The perception that policymakers are tools of altruistic goodwill is a very nave perspective on how politics is carried out, he said. The bottom line is this: they are self-preservationists at heart.

Valentine feels that technology and market forces will be the real game changers. In his opinion, thanks to declining cost profiles, many renewable energy technologies have finally reached the stage where economic benefits outweigh those of traditional sources. Therefore, it has become attractive for politicians to implement renewable energy solutions given the job creation and industrial competitiveness they can bring.

Balance private technology against public interests

Emergent technology for dealing with climate change is being increasingly championed and funded by private enterprises and investors. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, led by Bill Gates and some of the most powerful multibillionaires around the world, is a solid case in point.

While this push from the private sector is heartening, policymakersmust ensure any new technologies that could result from it will not become privileged commodities or lead to monopolies.

There's a degree of government involvement that is needed to optimise social value associated with energy transitions, Valentine said. Governments need to establish the conditions for market players to compete on a level playing field and for superior technologies to succeed, even if they might not be the technologies preferred by powerful stakeholder.

When it comes to non-energy technologies for abating climate change, he remains highly sceptical, despite their appeal of preserving the status quo. He cited the geo-engineering idea of injecting sulphate particles into the stratosphere to promote global dimming as a measure to counteract the greenhouse effect as an example. The technique is, in theory, similar to how a large volcanic eruption cools the earth temporarily because the massive amount of ash released into the stratosphere blocks incoming solar radiation.

Although relatively cheap to implement, geo-engineering will likely result in precipitation changes, ozone depletion and acid rain but the extent to which these side-effects might impair climatic processes is unclear. said Valentine. However, these scientific concerns are really not the main reasons why we shouldbe shying away from solutions such as these.

He continued, The chief reason for dismissing such solutions stems from the fact that such solutions merely serve to entrench reliance on fossil fuel resources that are finite, prone to upward cost pressures and cause significant other damage - such as the hundreds of thousands who die each year prematurely as a result of particulate matter emissions associated with fossil fuel combustion.

Different solutions and speeds required for different nations

The greatest challenge to managing climate change is not the lack of viable new technology, but the sticking nature of entrenched capital investment in outmoded technology, in both the public and private sectors. This gives rise to heated politics.

Valentine cited the examples of nuclear power in Japan and coal fire plants in China. It would be politically and economically challenging for these two governments to scrap their investments and switch to new technologies when the investments have yet to be fully depreciated.

Ultimately, implementing emergent technologies will differ from nation to nation. China is more likely to favour nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) methods in the short term, given the number of coal power plants that were only recently built. In contrast, in the U.S., where the power grid is out-dated and in need of upgrade, conditions are more economically conducive for supporting a shift to decentralised renewable energy systems where community energy systems, wind farms and household solar panels can play influential roles.

Change driven by technology is imminent

Valentine is optimistic about the positive impact that emergent technologies can have on the politics stymying climate change negotiations.

We are on the crux of an energy transition, he said. Whichever nation adopts the most proactive strategies for supporting the emergence of new technologies will be the nation that gives birth to the new energy Microsofts' of the world. Achieving first-mover advantages in these areas is going to play a role in defining the new global economic order.

In his mind, that is the underlying incentive that has encouraged world leaders to appear more supportive of greenhouse gas abatement strategies, and they see the writing on the wall and realise that their interests are increasingly better served by supporting change.

Valentine is also an author of "Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy: 15 Critical Questions ?"