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COP24: Clean Energy Highlights From the First Week of Climate Talks in Poland

By Emma Feohringer Merchant, Greentech Media, December 8, 2018

Climate negotiators meet to hash out rules for the Paris climate agreement.

International climate negotiators started work last week on global rules to meet the Paris agreement, a pact designed to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

As the first week of COP24 rolls into the second, grave warnings surround the conversations. Research released last week showed that global emissions are again on the rise, after a brief break. In 2018, scientists said emissions would rise 2.7 percent. This year’s levels hit a record high, driven mostly by energy use.

Growth in oil and natural gas generation, as well as persistent coal use, means energy produced from thermal sources is still outpacing the decarbonization of the energy sector. According to authors of one report released last week, “peak emissions will occur only when total fossil CO2 emissions finally start to decline despite growth in global energy consumption, with fossil energy production replaced by rapidly growing low- or no-carbon technologies.”

The news joins a series of reports released in recent months with similar warnings about climate change. Over the weekend, negotiators quibbled over how much recognition to give to a recent, landmark United Nations report on climate change. The debates, which again demonstrate the global divisions that still exist over climate action, add more urgency to the clean energy announcements that global governments, corporations and advocates have so far aligned with the meeting in Katowice, Poland.

Clean energy targets, but coal, too

During climate talks, the Council of the European Union signed revised directives on renewable energy and energy efficiency. By 2030, the council said, renewables will account for 32 percent of energy use in the European Union (EU), an increase from its previous 27 percent target. To drive that growth, the council said it would reduce charges and fees for rooftop solar and step up supportive market designs.

For its efficiency targets, the EU will increase energy savings by 0.8 percent each year between 2021 and 2030. It set a topline energy efficiency target of at least 32.5 percent by 2030.

At the same time, the EU said it would increase renewables in transport to 14 percent.

The EU’s announcement may act as a challenge to other global economies. Countries are set to revisit and increase ambition on their Paris commitments before 2020. Though countries such as Canada have said at the talks they’d do so, that depends on progress made in Poland.

Royal Dutch Shell also dropped an ambitious climate announcement this week, pledging to set short-term climate targets and tie the goals to executive salaries. Shell said the targets would help it “thrive through the energy transition.” The major has slowly, but increasingly moved into clean energy with investments in companies like NewMotion and GI Energy. Shell was also the world’s ninth largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2015, according to the Carbon Majors Database.

Other energy companies are also speaking up about the global transition at COP24. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy, with members including Enel, National Grid and Austin Energy, hosted a Friday event  and published a solution paper boosting the business case for clean energy. 

At the same time though, coal kept a strong presence in the first week of COP24. On Wednesday, the conservative Heartland Institute and Solidarity, a Polish trade union, published a joint declaration that denied the consensus on climate change. The groups also said they do not support eliminating coal from global energy portfolios.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a COP24 speech, also looked to assuage possible concerns from the country’s coal miners. “As long as I’m president of Poland,” he said. “I won’t let anyone murder coal-mining.”

The U.S. is also gearing up for a pro-fossil fuels event on Monday that aims to “showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible.” Axios reported that the event will include Steve Winberg, who works in fossil energy at the Department of Energy, as well as speakers focused on natural gas and advanced nuclear power.

Red light for French fuel tax and other clean transportation efforts

As climate talks got underway, French president Emmanuel Macron announced he would nix a planned increase in fuel taxes in order to quell protests in the very same city where the Paris agreement was brokered.

France’s “Yellow Vest” movement demonstrates that government-led climate action can be tenuous in any country. Members of the movement joinedprotests calling for climate action over the weekend, but Jacky Roy, mayor of France’s Vouvant, told Bloomberg that people are upset about higher fuel costs and still waiting to see the advantages of tax cuts.

In Katowice, that frustration was linked to greater efforts to push forward carbon taxes.

“People worry about worsening climate impact costs, but they are also genuinely concerned about the economic impact carbon pricing will have on their lives,” said Joe Robertson, Global Strategy Director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, at a COP24 event. “We can allay these fears by taking the revenue from carbon fees and giving it to the people.”

The World Resources Institute (WRI) argued that the Yellow Vests movement had in fact centered climate action in the protests, calling for “real ecological policy and not a few piecemeal fiscal measures” put in place by the government.

Reuters reported that though some COP24 delegates were disappointed the tax was pulled back, others said it was somewhat half-baked because it would disproportionately impact rural areas. WRI’s take on the protests highlighted the importance of addressing social inequity in tackling climate change — a key negotiating point of this year’s COP.

Stepping into its hosting shoes, Poland this week submitted a declaration called “Driving Change Together,” which proposes e-mobility as a permanent topic of discussion at future COPs. The initiative also creates a partnership of organizations, subnational governments and cities that will work internationally on e-mobility and meet at least once a year.

So far, 40 countries have signed onto the initiative (the U.S. has not). Washington state, Quebec, and organizations like the We Mean Business Coalition joined national governments in signing the declaration.

Coinciding with the effort, Poland said it would invest €3 to €4 billion (about $3.4 to $4.5 billion) in low-emissions public transport. It’s looking to buy over 1,000 electric busses.

World Bank and the International Association of Public Transport also launched a new report on electric mobility and development that lays out policy suggestions for countries to advance clean transportation using examples from around the world.

“Uncertainty is an overarching theme above all, considering the nascent state of eMobility uptake globally,” the report’s authors wrote. But they added that governmental initiatives like vehicle subsidies and charging infrastructure could push forward “policy predictability” to help the deployment of electrified transport.

At the same time that many parties were encouraging clean transportation targets, though, the Trump administration said it is looking to remove tax credits for electric vehicles.

Congress has final say over the subsidies. But the White House’s stand this week is another example of America’s faltering leadership.