Saturday 20 December 2014

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What should be the EU’s stance energy and climate change? This covers topics such as energy security, deforestation and CO2 emissions.


Aviators’ boss ‘confused’ about airline efficiency: the impact of the oil price slide

Posted by on 19/12/14

The rapid slide in oil prices, down 41% since June, has left the aviation industry struggling to defend its continuing high fuel surcharges and reports of record profits, writes Andrew Murphy. Here is IATA’s director general, Tony Tyler, updating his stance on oil prices in light of recent developments:

Reuters reported in November 2014: “Lower jet fuel prices, which make up around one-third of the cost base of airlines, would take time to filter through due to hedging strategies, IATA said. ‘And it could even be an indicator of difficulties ahead if the fall is driven by declining demand for oil rather than rising supply capacity,’ Tyler said.”

While in March 2012 he was singing a different tune: “The risk of a worsening Eurozone crisis has been replaced by an equally toxic risk – rising oil prices. Already the damage is being felt with a downgrade in industry profits to $3.0 billion,” Tyler said.

However, for those of us concerned about the climate impact of aviation, there is no confusion – lower oil prices could fatally undermine the drive towards more efficient flying. Two recent reports show that, even when prices were above $100 dollars a barrel, the aviation industry was not able to acheive its own goal of 1.5% fleet efficiency improvement per annum. A report from the German-based Atmosfair found that the efficiency of the world’s largest airlines was around 1% over the past year while a report from the ICCT found that domestic US aviation saw zero net improvement in its efficiency in 2013.

With oil today falling to $66 a barrel, there is a real risk that airline operators will hold off investing on more efficient aircraft and aircraft manufactures will resist investing in a new generation of even more efficient aircraft. Purchasing aircraft, or the R&D for developing more efficient ones, is not cheap and the industry needs certainty that such investments will pay off – wild flucations in oil prices are a barrier to this. We now risk moving further way from the IATA goal of 1.5% efficiency improvement per annum and ICAO’s even more ambitious goal of 2% per annum. While the drop in the price of oil may not last forever, any delay in improving efficiency will further fuel the increase in aviation emissions, which are already predicted to increase by between 60% and 80% by 2026 due to passenger growth of 4% per annum.

ICAO is working to develop a market-based mechanism. However, even if it is approved at its next Assembly in 2016, it will be 2020 before it comes into force. As the climate cannot wait six more years, we need the new European Commission to use 2015 to set out a credible path to reducing aviation emission and adopting measures that will encourage greater efficiency. This should include a revision of the EU ETS for the 25% of Europe’s aviation emissions that are still covered by this scheme since “stop the clock” so that it sends a real price signal to industry. It should also include an amendment of the Energy Taxation Directive so that aviation, like every other transport sector, is subject to fuel duty.

What progress did the UK make tackling climate change in 2014?

Posted by on 18/12/14

It’s been more than four years since David Cameron famously claimed his would be the ‘greenest government ever’ when the Conservative party came to power in 2010.

But his path to green greatness has not been an easy one; our air is illegally polluted, our renewable industry smarting from hit after hit and our government littered with climate change sceptics.

This year alone year alone has been filled with multiple public protests, threats ranging from malaria to mass immigration and missed job growth and economy recovery opportunities due to reluctance to invest in renewable energy.

But let’s break it down and take a look back at the year that was:

Q1 2014


Well, it’s hardly like 2014 kicked off to a great start; just a few weeks into January a newspaper investigation discovered the government had slashed its spend on preparing the UK for adverse climate change effects by almost a half.

Under the then Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, government spending dropped from £29.1m in 2012-13 to £17.2m in 2013-14.

The timing couldn’t have been worse; the nation was in the midst of the wettest winter on record and 5,800 homes and businesses were damaged by flooding as a result of the extreme weather.

The move was, unsurprisingly, widely condemned by critics; not least of all by the Committee on Climate Change who threatened the cuts could lead to an extra £3 billion in avoidable future flood damages.

By March warnings of potential threats to the UK as a result of climate change were coming in thick and fast.

Firstly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the UK would soon be hit by a wave of mass immigration as millions of climate change refugees were made homeless by extreme weather, food shortages and consequential war, disease and famine.

Then came a report from consultancy firm PWC which showed food prices in Britain looked set to rise dramatically in the next few years as extreme weather in other countries damaged crops and the other food imports we rely on.

We only have to look a few years back to see the actualisation of the above warning, when the heat waves of 2010 damaged crops in Eastern Europe causing food prices in the UK to rise by 5%.

Despite the above evidence, the government took eight months to recognise and respond to the pressing need for the UK to not just reduce its own carbon footprint, but to also help developing countries battle climate change.

Q2 2014


April brought with it more bad news as Oxford University announced that manmade climate change would lead to many more extreme flooding events in the UK.

Previously the UK had only seen flooding like winter 2013’s every 100 years, but the study suggested similar events would occur in the South of England every eight years as a direct result of climate change.

The Met Office then issued a warning that climate change was also likely to cause more flash flooding in the UK as heavy rainfall reacted with the arid land caused by drier than average summers.

Though it wasn’t all bad news; April also brought with it some progress as the UK government finally agreed to back eight major renewable energy projects.

The three biomass plants and five windfarms planned came with a promise of 8,500 jobs and the ability to power millions of homes in the UK with clean energy.

Fast forward to June and the government’s top science adviser and UK chief scientist Sir Mark Walport pleased environmentalists by calling for urgent debate on climate change mitigation.

He requested a stop to debates on whether or not climate change exists and the relating energy and resources instead to be used for creating policies on how best tackle it.

He made clear his belief that ‘climate change is happening and humans are significant contributors’ and said there needed to be more roles for scientists and engineers to research and establish the pros and cons of new energy sources and technologies designed to combat climate change.

He also backed fracking, which he said was safe and environmentally sound when done properly.

June was also the month that China’s head of government visited the UK and a joint statement was released from both nations agreeing on the urgency and importance of action against climate change and the need for renewable energy.

However, it was noted that while China was putting a cap on its coal use, the UK government was refusing to regulate the UK’s ageing coal plants and was still not doing enough to encourage greater renewable energy production and use in the UK.

Q3 2014


But still it seemed the government was not doing enough and in September 40,000 people including Vivienne Westwood, Emma Thompson and Peter Gabriel, took to the streets demanding greater action against climate change.

Unperturbed, David Cameron announced that he believed he had kept his pledge to run the UK’s greenest government yet when speaking at the UN summit on climate change.

At the meeting of world leaders in New York on September 23rd he said: Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing our world. And it is not just a threat to the environment. It is also a threat to our national security, to global security, to poverty eradication and to economic prosperity.”

He said his party had doubled the UK’s renewable energy capacity in the last four years, created the world’s first green bank and the UK was well on its way to cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

But it seems his words may have rung a little hollow; his speech came days after a poll revealed nearly three quarters of Conservative MPs didn’t  believe climate change was caused by human activity, with 18% of Tory MPs admitting they thought the notion of man-made climate change was ‘environmentalist propaganda’.

Q4 2014

It took until almost the end of the year for the government to assert some authority and not only agree to spend £600m on helping poor countries tackle climate but to also quash the critics who questioned it.

After a year filled with scientifically backed reports on the negative effects climate change in other countries could have on the UK, Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey was correct in saying in November: “People recognise that we live in a global economy where when something happens in another part of the world it can impact on our lives here. The idea we should be isolationist Little Englanders is absolute nonsense.

However, this one spot of good government action could not prevent more bad news emerging; a report issued by London’s Imperial College in November showed the UK would fail to meet its carbon emissions target set for 2030 unless significant policy changes were made.

There was also a warning from the UK’s Royal Society in December who found future heat waves caused by global climate change would have catastrophic results on the UK’s elderly population, who are less able to look after themselves in extreme conditions.

All this was followed by a scathing letter written by Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband who slammed chancellor George Osborne’s failure to mention climate change or carbon emission targets in the Autumn Statement and accused David Cameron of making a ‘long retreat from the principles in which he once claimed to believe [in]’.

However, it is possible the year may end on a high (of sorts) with the reintroduction of the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund.

The financial package aimed at helping residents improve the energy efficiency of their homes was closed a few weeks after launching earlier on in the year due to a lack of preparation.

But now it is back, and as of December 10, householders can apply for free cash to pay for home improvements such as solid wall insulation and double glazing to help them reduce their energy use and carbon production.

Round Up

2014 has certainly been a mixed bag, key politicians were certainly keen to be quoted saying they thought climate change was an important topic to be addressed, but while there was some progress made in 2014 there was certainly much more that could have been done.

With a hotly contested election due in May next year who knows what 2015 will bring.

Link Credit: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4

Effective climate policy requires action by governments and people

Posted by on 09/12/14

COP 20, the 20th annual climate conference, has started in Lima in a mood of increasing realism. Those who still believe in containing global warming within two degrees Celsius target are becoming rarer. The issue becomes more and more if Humanity will get away with acceptable conditions of survival or succumb to famine, non-ending natural disasters, tens or even hundreds(?) of millions of climate refugees and conflicts for water and fertile land.

The 20-year history of “combating” climate change has been a succession of “too little, too late”, starting with the Kyoto Protocol that turned into a failure because of its late entry into force and the non-participation of the biggest emitter countries.

For the last 20 years, we have continued to live as if climate change did not exist. The political elites in major emitter countries like Australia, Russia or, until most recently, even USA have continued to simply ignore it, whatever the rising numbers of natural catastrophes across the planet.

No political leader has dared to impose hardship on potential voters, say gasoline prices of €3/litre or electricity rates of €0.15/kWh. Our life has remained as comfortable as ever, with no restrictions on heating, cooling and lightening our homes and using planes or cars as before the climate challenge.

The global “climate policy elite” seems satisfied with the few “positive” developments in 2014, from the bilateral China-USA“deal” with the Chinese promise to peak its emissions latest until 2030 and generate 20 per cent of its energy from non-fossil sources and the US commitment to lower emissions by close to 30 per cent until 2025.

It puts a lot of faith in the bottom-up/top-down approach for the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, under which each of the 190-odd participant countries is expected to present a strategic road-map for reducing green house gas emissions.

Judging by the response given by China to start reducing emissions latest by 2030 and the more than wary reactions from India,which will become the biggest emitter country in a few decades the outcome from Paris will not have a a positive impact on the global climate in the first half of the21st century. After all, it will have taken the EU from 1990 to 2030 to reduce its emissions by 40 per cent and, if everything works to schedule, 60 years to reduce them by 80 per cent until 2050. And the rest of the world is far behind the EU in terms of preparedness.

Climate scientists have not stopped warning policy makers about the need to go fast. But their calls have gone unnoticed because policy makers have constantly been engaged in more pressing day-to-day issues and have not dared to confront their citizens with painful measures to be taken.

Let us therefore hope that the international community will finally get serious and step up its joint efforts, focusing on mitigation and considering adaptation as the secondary issue. Indeed, if humanity fails to mitigate emissions dramatically financing adaptation will no longer help. We must prevent the natural glaciers storage of the Himalayas from melting instead of financing artificial dams for storing water.

On December 15th, at the end of the Lima Conference, which so far has not been very successful in solving the well-known technical details, we should be better able to assess the chances of success of the crucial meeting in Paris at the end of 2015.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 6/12/2014

Energy access, development and decarbonisation: uneasy bedfellows in the UNFCCC

Posted by on 07/12/14
By Jason Anderson, WWF The UN is a slow grind of thousands of negotiators meeting regularly to hash through minutiae is the world’s biggest intercultural exchange project, creating understanding one coffee break at a time.

Germany to EU: if your climate policies aren’t up to the job, we’ll have to solve it ourselves

Posted by on 04/12/14

By Jason Anderson, Head of European Climate and Energy Policy at WWF European Policy Office

Yesterday Germany announced that it will continue its national commitment to achieve a cut of 40% in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, despite EU policy that is insufficient to support that aim. It will put in place measures to cut energy use and emissions, including from sectors covered by the ailing EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Germany’s announcement is important and ambitious, considering the reduction achieved up to 2013 was only 24%. It also makes the national commitment for 2020 more binding and concrete.

When the European Council endorsed a 2030 framework that would allow the EU to continue its weak approach, pressure mounted in Germany to drop or delay its 40% 2020 target. The government has countered by reinforcing its resolve instead. This this a clear signal to the EU: if your policies aren’t up to the job, we’ll have to solve it ourselves.

On the one side it’s a challenge to the system. On the other, it is exactly the spirit that the EU and others are explicitly encouraging in the UN climate talks, now underway in Peru: countries should strive to do more than they have put on the table, and seek diverse ways to achieve those reductions.

The reaction in Europe should be for those countries that are serious about fighting climate change to push for more ambitious legislation – starting with reform of the EU ETS through what is called the ‘market stability reserve’ (MSR). It will take tonnes out of the oversupplied ETS, but only starting in 2021, and only to store them for later return – an insufficient approach. The MSR should start sooner, and include mechanisms to retire excess tonnes that world otherwise continue to drag the system down.

See WWF Germany’s reaction to Germany’s announcement of its climate action programme

What LEDs in Lima tell us about climate action

Posted by on 03/12/14

By Jason Anderson, Head of European Climate and Energy Policy at WWF European Policy Office

I arrived in Lima Saturday morning for the COP20 UN climate negotiations and went directly to my hotel for a 12-hour WWF preparatory meeting, to get into the spirit of the event. One of the key issues we discussed is how we come to terms with the gap between the contribution to emissions reductions needed from different countries compared to their current likely contributions – which are much too low both individually and in aggregate.

In the case of the EU, its 2030 target is ‘at least 40%’ below 1990 levels, but according to EcoEquity’s online equity calculator, the EU’s cuts should be 80% at a bare minimum, counting both domestic and supported international action together: far, far beyond what is being proposed.

Staring at the ceiling seeking inspiration for how to close that huge gap, I noticed that all of the spot lighting was LEDs – the latest 5 watt lights that replace 35-50 watt halogens. That means that every year the meeting room saves more than the equivalent of my own home’s entire annual electricity use.

Three Japanese scientists received the Nobel prize this year for inventing the technology that makes commercial white LED lights possible. As the Nobel committee’s press release says:

“The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power. The invention of the efficient blue LED is just twenty years old, but it has already contributed to create white light in an entirely new manner to the benefit of us all.”

To get LEDs to the point that they are cheap enough to be of interest to developing countries, they had to go from a lab experiment to an inexpensive commercial technology – often a long road. The world leader is the Dutch company Philips (three of the top 10 are European, one is American and six are Japanese). Philips made a laudable business decision that LEDs were a big future market, but their confidence is likely reinforced by the supportive European policy environment. The EU is in the process of phasing out incandescent light bulbs, giving LEDs an opening that it will capitalise on in competition with compact fluorescents, as they reduce costs and improve performance. That tipping point has now basically been crossed, bringing LEDS to the point that a mid-range Peruvian hotel has chosen to install them without phase outs, mandates or subsidies.

Naturally, China is in line to become a big player in LEDs. The NDRC predicts that by 2015, the country will earn $30 billion in manufacturing and 20% of the market will be LEDs. Not uncoincidentally, China is also phasing out many types of incandescents in the next three years.

The LED story reflects the whole package we want to see across clean energy technologies: basic research lays a solid basis; companies are willing to take those technologies into nascent markets; governments, recognising they have environmental and economic goals to reach, set efficiency standards that expand those markets, encouraging more investment in the technology. Costs drop to the point that it becomes accessible globally.

We could tell a similar story about solar PV: obligations and subsidies, first in Japan, and then at even larger scale in Germany, increased markets to the point that large-scale manufacturing, including in China, brought down costs for everyone. Germany’s efforts driving PV down the innovation cost curve means that its efforts save the globe billions of dollars every year, and gives countries across the development spectrum the opportunity to take advantage of solar’s benefits.

The nature of the international negotiations can promote a static understanding of the actions needed to reach global decarbonisation well before the end of the century: it appears to be a numbers game, with the full range of efforts supposedly contained in percentages for which governments are meant to take responsibility, but come nowhere near achieving, with the remainder of the effort deferred, or shoved under the carpet.

This view is depressing and disempowering – it makes failure appear nearly inevitable, and it undermines the momentum everyone knows is actually building globally. Technology, investment, policy and public engagement have turned a corner, and emissions reductions will follow if we continue to do two things: slow down processes that emit and speed up ones that don’t. It’s a pretty straightforward concept. If we add to that the efforts and finance needed to increase our resilience in the face of the amount of climate change that is already inevitable, then we have the main aspects covered.

In the UNFCCC, the language of commitments for such a package will of course be couched in its own abstruse form of performance art. There are elements of an international deal long under discussion that sound promising – like ‘technology transfer,’ which is one of many cul-de-sacs from which nothing ever emerges. But fortunately when looking at the draft negotiating documents coming out of the important ‘ADP’ sessions (The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, for heaven’s sake), most of the ingredients for a more inclusive, more flexible, and yet still equitable agreement with real commitments, are on (or at least hovering near) the table.

A good litmus test for the agreement in Europe will be whether it accommodates – or even facilitates – clearing up some currently perverse situations. Consider that the EU will blow past its 2020 target but is unwilling to commit to this in the UN. It has tabled 2030 obligations that is knows represents a slow-down in action over the previous decade, but feels compelled to paint it as a glorious achievement to avoid upsetting the perceived balance of international burden sharing. The UNFCCC needs to provide opportunities for countries to aim high, and keep ratcheting the level of efforts to help stay below 2 degrees. It should hold their feet to the fire in light of the urgent need for emissions reductions, and work towards a better recognition of the positive actions Parties can take individually and collectively.

While the reality of climate change is becoming dire, avoiding the worst of it is a challenge we will rise to only by creating a positive spirit of change and opportunity. I’m certainly hoping that staring at the ceiling two days before the start of the COP isn’t the most uplifting moment of the fortnight!


Passive Houses for dummies

Posted by on 29/11/14

For many years now, since 2003, the second weekend of November hosts the International Passive House Days: Passive House owners and residents around the globe open their Passive House homes and offices and share their experiences, showing what this “Passive House” idea/concept is all about.

Hungary joined this initiative in 2009, when the Hungarian Passive House Association (MAPASZ) became responsible for a local program. In 2012 the Association of Hungarian Passive House Architects (PAOSZ) followed this lead and offered its own, separate set of programmes which resulted in an even more adequate coverage of these innovative and energy efficient buildings here in Hungary.

To complete the picture, an EU-funded project dedicated to the topic of nearly zero energy buildings (Nearly Zero Energy Buildings Open Doors Days) also organised building visits this year which partly overlapped with the other two tours (organised by MAPASZ and PAOSZ), but ensured the mobilisation of further interested parties to engage with this global event.

This year Geonardo – within the frame of its AIDA project – joined forces with MAPASZ in order to reach out to and mobilise an ever increasing number of people who are genuinely interested in the concept of Passive Houses and the related advanced building engineering technologies. Similarly to previous years’ experience, only a small fraction of the participants had an architect or similar building industry-related background: the majority of them were only open to the concept and wanted to learn more about the featuring success stories, or wanted to gather some operational experience before they engage into their own passive building project.

The first day covered a wide array of innovative buildings from Western Hungary featuring a few private homes, a school, a dental clinic and an apartment building, demonstrating that not only regular houses can be considered when developing such a project but essentially any type of building can achieve this cutting-edge energy standard. Despite their versatility, the buildings on display had a few basic features in common which are absolutely essential when it comes to a nearly zero energy building (nZEB) or passive house. The most important of them are air-tightness and thermal insulation.

It is easy to understand that if you want to have an energy efficient real-estate you can’t afford wasting energy on heating or cooling the outside environment as a result of a “leaking” building envelope. This is especially true if you have a renewable-based low-temperature heating system planned/installed with an output just sufficient (with little reserve) if the building meets certain energy standards but which might prove inadequate if the structure fails to comply with those initially planned figures. The blower-door test is a common tool to measure the air-tightness of buildings: “Blower door tests are used to assess the construction quality of the building envelope, locate air leakage pathways, assess how much ventilation is supplied by the air leakage, assess the energy losses resulting from that air leakage and to determine if the building needs mechanical ventilation.” (source: Wikipedia).

The test is highly recommended when there is still some room to fix the potential problems at a relatively low cost (half-ready status), rather than wait until the building is finished, only to engage into costly repair works aiming to bring the house up to the planned standards.

One of the main highlights of the first day came when the owners described their reactions when the blower door test concluded its findings on the given building.

Some of them were relieved that the construction crew did its job properly securing the air-tightness of the property while others were quite disappointed by the results. Since the Passive House technologies and standards are relatively new there aren’t many contractors prepared enough to tackle the challenges such a job requires.

We were told that most of the tasks which make the difference between good and poor results (an additional layer of sealing around the windows, a bit more filling around the cables entering the structure etc) require no special knowledge or ability to perform them, rather patience, a bit of time and devotion. The latter of which is usually lacked by the crews responsible for the job. The general consensus was that you have to do these tedious bits for yourself if you want them properly done or you might face costly consequences to get them fixed.

It’s a cliché that thermal insulation is a key factor when it comes to energy efficiency of buildings, and in case of nearly zero energy buildings or passive houses it gets even more important.

There is a relatively wide range of building materials that are suitable for such buildings, but their inherent thermal properties alone wouldn’t make them fit for the purpose without additional layers of thermal insulation applied over them either from the inside or the outside. On our tour we came across various structures built of regular, hollow, fired clay-bricks, sandlime bricks or even cast-concrete, demonstrating that personal preferences can be taken into consideration when building an energy efficient structure and that there is more than one way to skin the cat.

For instance, the owner of the concrete building said that his home was erected in just under 2 months. Insulated concrete form (ICF) is a system of formwork for reinforced concrete usually made with a rigid thermal insulation that stays in place as a permanent interior and exterior substrate for walls, floors, and roofs. The forms are interlocking modular units that are dry-stacked (without mortar) and filled with concrete. The units lock together somewhat like Lego bricks and create a form for the structural walls or floors of a building. Because of the uniform wall structure there is no surprise that this house’s blower door test results were by far the best among the ones visited. But in my personal opinion I wouldn’t want to voluntarily live in a reinforced-concrete-walled house even though its energy performance, speed of delivery and visual appearance makes it a quite appealing option. The rest of the programme buildings followed a more traditional wall structure using different types of bricks with various thickness of insulation covering them.

In general it can be said that the main difference between a passive house and a regular home lies in the thickness of the insulating layer and in the quality of finishing.

When it comes to passive houses or highly energy efficient buildings a common concern is usually raised about not-to-be-opened windows. It makes sense to rely on the mechanical ventilation, and not to use the windows for uncontrolled ventilation once you spent so much on making your structure air-tight and thermally insulated. All of the buildings in our programme were equipped with such a system; thanks to their sophisticated ability to heat the fresh air from the outside using the heat of the used air from the inside, they minimised the amount of energy needed to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures and moisture levels. Hence we were told that in case guests are over, they might end up overheating the house simply through the overall body heat, so the fans need to be turned higher to cope with the increased demand.


It is quite fascinating to see that adequate air tightness and thermal insulation may render regular heating options obsolete or even futile. Some of the visited buildings had been equipped either by radiators or floor heating, but only as a backup, since 99% of the time ducted-air heating meets the needs.

Of course passive house owners may also use their windows in a traditional way (unless they choose fixed windows), but they usually do so when the temperature difference is minimal between the inside and the outside (Spring, Autumn etc). In all other cases they have uninterrupted access to fresh pre-heated or pre-cooled and moisture-controlled air via their heat-recovering ventilation system and they do not have to waste the energy they used to heat or cool the air inside when opening the window for fresh air. Nowadays many manufacturers offer amazingly compact devices which could even fit in your kitchen cupboard and take care of all building engineering tasks (heating, cooling, ventilation, DHW) in a single unit, though such a sophisticated piece of engineering comes with a hefty price tag.

Some owners prefer these types of solutions, though the more complex the design, the more specialised maintenance has to be done in case something goes wrong. We have seen a few buildings where the owners were pursuing to keep the building engineering system as basic and easy-to-repair as possible. A young couple for instance after having an air-tight and thermally insulated structure with a simple heat recovering ventilation in place, added only electric heating films to cover for their additional heating needs, if necessary using their solar PV produced energy. It is a plain, simple, cheap and easy-to-maintain solution.

Though the number of newly built and retrofitted passive houses and nearly zero energy buildings are getting more and more numerous, year by year the total number of such buildings is still in the range of a few hundred at tops, compared to the 4.2 million homes in Hungary. On one hand it is delightful to see this tendency in Hungary, but on the other hand these innovative structures can only be considered as the few exceptions to the general rule so far. A rule which still represents the traditional way of building a home using outdated approaches, concepts and materials. As long as this is the prevailing rule, such buildings will remain a minority and no bigger scale building energy targets can be met effectively.

Gambling on China’s Energy Revolution

Posted by on 27/11/14

The joint announcement signed by presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing brought climate change back to the international headlines. The document set targets for both sides to achieve and was welcomed or damned in equal measure.

Although the announcement binds neither side, it was seen by many politicians and observers as a step forward. Two key global powers, the largest CO2 emitters, had come to an agreement on climate change. China had for the first time committed itself in an international agreement to targets. In the announcement. China stated that it, “intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030”.

But the critics and sceptics have been many, especially of the targets China has set. One criticism had been that the emissions target is too loose, and allows China to continue emitting CO2 without constraint until 2030. Another, focusing on the non-fossil fuel target, has been that it is too easy, in fact setting out no more than what China plans to do anyway.

The announcement made the point, emphasized by President Obama, that meeting the target would require China to install 800 to 1000 GW of zero-emissions energy generating capacity by 2030, which is greater than the current coal-fired generating capacity in China. One man at least, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who believes in the future of coal, was happy with the apparent weakness of the target on the grounds that according to him it meant that by 2030 80% of China’s energy would still come from coal. His government predicts that since China will still need to import large quantities of Australia’s coal its economic future is thus assured.

The EU has been pretty much on the sidelines in all of this, but it too has a stake in China’s commitments. The stake is not just political concern over global policy on climate change. Like others, the EU has an interest in the future direction of the Chinese economy. The EU does not have much coal of offer, but it does have environmental and energy technology and know-how that would find a market in a China committed to reducing energy use and emissions.

Predicting China’s future energy demand and emissions is difficult. The variables to be taken into account lead to huge differences in possible outcomes. But one of the most important elements in China will be government policy and its targets. In China this gives some idea of whether it will meet its commitments in the announcement, at least the 20% non-fossil fuels target for 2020.

In 2013 China’s primary energy production (in Standard Coal Equivalent (SCE), the measure used in China) was 75.6% coal, 8.9% oil, 4.6% natural gas, and 10.9% hydro, nuclear and wind. In this mix, coal has recently declined slightly, oil has also declined, while natural gas and non-fossil fuels have been rising. But primary energy consumption shows a different picture. Primary energy consumption in 2013 was 66% coal, 18.4% oil, 5.8% natural gas and 9.8% hydro, nuclear and wind. Coal has clearly declined from a recent peak of 71.1% a few years ago, oil has remained more or less at the same level for several years, while natural gas and non-fossil fuels have increased their share. The difference between primary energy production and consumption is accounted for by imports and exports. China imports most of its oil and increasing amounts of natural gas. In recent years, despite huge domestic production, it has also imported significant amounts of coal.

Table 1: China Share of Primary Energy Production Source: National Bureau of Statistics


Table 2: China Share of Primary Energy Consumption Source: National Bureau of Statistics

As these figures show, Tony Abbott’s belief that in 2030 80% of China’s energy will still come from coal is already wrong. He appears to suffer from two possible confusions. While it is true that currently close of 80% of primary energy production is coal this is not the case for consumption, which is what the announcement refers to. Abbott’s other possible error is a belief that even if China meets the target that 20% of energy consumption will come from non-fossil energy in 2020, then the remainder must come from coal.

Will China meet the target? Earlier this year Xi Jinping spoke of the need for a revolution in China’s energy production and consumption. At the time, he referred only to broad principles. The State Council has issued a Strategic Action Plan for Energy Development (2014-2020) which gives some detail on how this revolution will be achieved. The plan sets some targets. Non-fossil fuels are targeted to reach 15% of energy consumption by 2020, natural gas more than 10% and coal less than 62%. Although it is not specified, this leaves about 13% for oil.

The plan also calls for an installed capacity of over 200 GW of wind power in 2020, over 100 GW of solar photovoltaic (PV), 350 GW of normal hydro power and 58 GW of nuclear, with a further 30 GW of nuclear to be under construction. By comparison, at the end of 2013 China had 91.4 GW of grid-connected wind capacity and 19.4 GW of grid-connected solar PV capacity. The goals are reachable. In 2013 added 12.9 GW of solar PV and 16.1 GW of wind capacity, both the largest in the world. It also added 29.9 GW of hydro capacity.

Is not clear whether these targets will be the final word for the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) which will cover a key period from 2016 to 2020. In recent years targets for renewables have been repeatedly raised as previous ones have been exceeded. One recent article in the Chinese media quoted an official from the planning department of the National Energy Agency (NEA) discussing the 13th FYP as saying the target for 2020 would be for coal to account for less than 60% of primary energy consumption, and he also said that the target for 2030 would be less than 50%.

On the current trend, the target for coal to account for under 62% of energy consumption by 2020 seems feasible. If the target of 15% for non-fossil fuels by 2020 is achieved, which on today’s rates of installation it probably will be, then another 5% in the following decade will not be difficult. One of the reasons why the target will be “easy” is not because it is low, but because China already is the largest investor in renewables in the world. Even if China merely continues renewable energy installations at the current rates over the next 16 years it will reach the added capacity the announcement says is required in the range of 800 to 1000 GW by 2030 with some to spare.

There are many uncertainties in all of these outcomes. President Obama has taken a political gamble on China’s energy revolution, while Tony Abbott is betting against it without apparently really understanding the odds. From a European perspective, a bet on rather than against China’s energy revolution seems wiser.

The EU on the Margins in Asia

Posted by on 23/11/14

For a few days in November Beijing almost seemed like the centre of the world. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing brought together a diverse group of 21 countries from the Asia-Pacific which includes those as far flung as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, China, the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea and several from southeast Asia. For once, the results of a summit exceeded the billing. Much was written in the Western media about who shook whose hand, who smiled at whom and who stood next to whom. Some of these meetings and greetings were undoubtedly important, especially in the case of China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has perhaps unlocked an improvement in one of the most important relationships in Asia, but there was much more to the summit than this.

The summit produced an APEC  declaration on fighting corruption, one element of which is to establish a regional network on to coordinate anti-corruption activities, apparently set up at the request of the Chinese government. The summit declaration also gave support to the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which is backed by China. The other main outcomes of the summit were several declarations concerning issues such as trade and investment, economic development, reform and growth, regional connectivity and infrastructure. China was also eager to promote its vision of regional vision of regional integration through infrastructure construction.

However, it was the bilateral show between China and the US which caught many of the headlines. There were agreements between China and the US on several issues. The main headline grabber was the declaration signed by presidents Xi Jinping and Barak Obama on climate change. There was an additional bilateral agreement on expansion of the WTO Information Technology Agreement (ITA), which reduces trade tarrifs on IT products. Less widely publicized were two sets of rules agreed by China and the US which are intended to avoid military confrontations. The two also signed an agreement easing of visa restrictions,

Other bilateral agreements emerged at the summit, for instance one signed between China and Russian on energy supplies. China and Vietnam also came to an agreement on settlement of maritime disputes. In addition, China and Japan had come to an accord prior to the summit that sought to take the heat out of their disputes and which enabled the Xi-Abe handshake to take place.

It would be wrong to think that the Asia-Pacific has suddenly resolved itself into harmony. Conflicts were on clear view, not least between Russia’s President Putin and several of the other leaders present. China and its neighbours are far from resolving their differences. Despite their agreements, the US and China had obvious divergences, notably between the US and its Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and China which is promoting the FTAAP. The US, just to emphasize this divergence, held a meeting in its Beijing embassy to discuss the TPP, although it led to no real progress in the negotiations. Many of the underlying regional problems remain. But for once, the leaders attending the summit could say it had not been a complete waste. The two key countries, China and the US, could both claim to have achieved real successes, both bilaterally and regionally.

Where was the EU in all this? The obvious answer is nowhere, since the EU is not part of APEC. However, this in itself raises a more fundamental issue. What does the EU do in Asia? The APEC summit brought together widely disparate countries of the Asia-Pacific, and produced some real results. There is no equivalent of this for the EU and Asia. True, the EU has its own forum for interaction with Asia, the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM). But this runs a poor second in terms of status and outcomes. The ASEM bills itself as a “dialogue facilitator”. At best it produces many dialogues, but which, while they may be very worthy, produce few significant outcomes. In the area of trade, the EU has its own efforts at policy in Asia, but their ambitions and achievements are limited, and certainly do not match the goals of the US (whether the US efforts to create TPP will actually achieve anything is another matter). A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) here or there and a scattering of Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA) is the best to be hoped for from the EU. With China the EU has its Strategic Comprehensive Partnership, but at the moment the EU’s level of ambition is limited to negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).

Of course, the EU does not have the same strategic commitment to Asia as the US. Yet, even leaving this aside, the influence of the EU in Asia remains weak. True, following the APEC summit, the EU was present at the G20 meeting in Australia, a meeting that by coincidence happened on the margins of the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps there the EU could claim some influence by being partly responsible for forcing climate change onto the agenda over the resistance of the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. A victory in alliance with the US among others over the Australian prime minister can hardly count as a great achievement, and the real momentum had in any case largely been created by the Xi-Obama climate declaration a few days previously. But, in reality the meeting only served to illustrate the weakness of the EU. The main outcome of the G20 was agreement on growth, which supposedly committed the members to adopting policies intended to achieve an additional 2% annual GDP growth over current trends. This merely serves to highlight the EU’s abysmal recent economic record and prospects, in contrast to most of East Asia and even the US.

The EU may see itself as having soft or normative power, and it does do much that is positive in Asia, but it has limited impact in the region.  The fact that China chose to sign a climate change agreement with the US, rather than the EU, which portrays itself a climate change leader, tells us which President Xi regards as most important. The same can be said for the agreement on the ITA between China and the US. These are not just bilateral in importance. The first gives some hope for a global climate change agreement, and the second gives a flickering of vital signs to the comatose global multilateral trade process.  For all the contradictory nature of the US relationship with Asia and with China it remains important, despite signs of its declining power and much that is questionable about the intentions and results of President Obama’s rebalancing to Asia. The EU as a group is marginal to Asia, and disengaged. Will this change with the EU’s new leadership? There are many good excuses for why it will not. First among them is the huge effort required from the EU to rectify its own domestic failings. Externally, problems closer to home, the Ukraine crisis and the disaster that stretches across most of North Africa and the Middle East, will occupy much time. But Asia, and especially China, even if it is far away, requires engagement. Europe has a choice either to accept its marginal position in Asia or do something to change it.


New G20 ‘commitments’ on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies are worthless

Posted by on 20/11/14
By Eberhard Rhein In 2009, heads of government agreed to phase out fossil fuels subsidies by 2020. This month, leaders at the G20 in Brisbane repeated the aim but scrapped the deadline. Is the G20 the 'loosest governing bodies' on earth?

Climate policy’s instrument is more important than its numeric target

Posted by on 16/11/14

Last Thursday, I took part in the Energy Conference in Ústí nad Labem in the Czech Republic. During the debate, the panel discussion moderator asked me why Poland contested the EU climate policy for such a long time only to agree to the elevated emission reduction target. My answer was that I believed that it was not us who had changed, but the European Union, which had seen its mistakes and decided to step back (for more, see: Naturally, this will not be a simple task, and success is far from certain, because we have created some strong lobbying groups in the EU, which will not give ground easily. What is good, however, is that we now have a single EU-wide emission reduction target – to cut emissions by 40% below 1990 levels, and a single instrument – the price of emission allowances. I have explained on numerous occasions before, also on this blog, why having multiple objectives is harmful. Under the European Commission’s current proposed framework, the additional targets (27% share of RES in the Energy Union’s overall energy consumption and an energy consumption reduction target of 30%) are not binding.

In the climate policy debate, it is the targets that elicit the strongest emotions. This is probably because those taking part in the discussion take it for granted that the target and the instrument share a strong causal relationship, which they do in the models used to evaluate the economic impact of the climate policy. These models obviously abstract from unpredictable events, including not only recessions and economic crises, but also positive developments, such as the emergence of innovative technologies which alter the pricing balance of energy sources, while the fact of the matter is that reality is teeming with unforeseen circumstances. In effect, such forecasts only manage to approximate actual events, or miss them completely. This holds especially true for long-term projections, such as those used to plan out climate policies. When validating such models against reality, the emission reduction target to be achieved in 20 years is as credible as the projection’s verifiability over the 20-year horizon. What really counts is the instrument, which determines the policy’s effectiveness and cost for the taxpayer.

Theoretically tied only to the target value, the instrument of the EU climate policy – the price of emission allowances – has been designed to react to all favourable and unfavourable developments along the way, which causes the result to be opposite of what was intended. The price of emission allowances drops close to zero in reaction to any unforeseen emission reductions in the wake of a deep recession and the meagre economic recovery that follows. In the end, the policy provokes confusion and discourages investment rather than urges companies on in the right direction. In business terms, it is an increased regulatory risk. Let’s then not be afraid of ambitious climatic targets, as they pose no threat. What is dangerous, however, are the ill-considered instruments employed to achieve such goals, which needlessly add to the already high uncertainty associated with the extremely long-term character of the climate policy.If we were able to introduce an instrument immune to the unpredictable which would be able to differentiate energy prices depending on emission levels, we would set a new direction for businesses to invest in, as well as for developing new technologies. The climate policy would gain credibility. Businesses would choose the cheapest available emission reduction technologies and join forces with scientists in search of new ones. What about reducing emissions? How much of the target would be achieved in 2030 and 2050 would depend on any disruptions that happen along the way and affect economic growth in that time horizon. If we grow faster, emissions will increase. Slower growth, on the other hand, will mean less emissions. Still, irrespective of how the economic situation develops and whatever new technologies emerge, we will be successful in creating a low-carbon economy at a much lower cost. The good news is that such an instrument already exists. Can you guess what it is?


China can reduce air pollution when it has to

Posted by on 06/11/14

From November 3 to 11 Beijing is hosting an APEC Summit, which 20 Heads of Government from the Pacific region will attend.

To that end, the local authorities have undertaken utmost efforts to clean up their city, which is one the most polluted on earth.

The streets are “empty” because schools, local government, public and private companies send their students and staff on temporary leave. This enables the authorities to halve the number of cars on the roads, according to even and uneven number plates.

The air is “clean” because some 300 energy-intensive factories around Beijing have to close down or reduce their activities during the Summit. Public works within the city are temporarily suspended.

The APEC meeting can therefore take place in a beautiful, clean and quiet city that in reality does no longer exist; and the international visitors can return home with the impression that China is finally coming to grips with pollution, something its citizens have been demanding for years.

After this impressive “clean-up” in Beijing popular pressure on local and central government is bound to grow to tackle air pollution and thus help reigning in rising health costs and climate-related natural catastrophes.

This will require phasing out coal-fired power plants,and introducing equipment to eliminate small particles in factory-chimneys as well as less-polluting vehicles.

The Chinese political establishment is becoming increasingly aware of these risks and would be well advised not to further delay urgent action.

The Chinese position at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015 will show to what extent awareness will have turned into action.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 5/11/2014


I, the Risk-Monger, am a climate sceptic

Posted by on 04/11/14
I, the Risk-Monger, am a climate sceptic. There, I said it. I came out and it is a relief.

Technological breakthroughs against climate change brighten the horizon

Posted by on 28/10/14

Humanity will be unable to combat climate change without profound transformations in the way it generates energy.

Two such transformations have been recently announced, one in Singapore, the other in USA.

In Singapore, a team of scientists of the Nanyang Technological University have developed a new type of ultra-fast recharging batteries which are claimed to charge a car battery up to 70% of capacity within five minutes. This breakthrough will revolutionise e-mobility in terms of range and costs and make electric cars superior to the most efficient diesel vehicles.

European manufacturers should therefore urgently reassess the situation and adapt their proven, but old-fashioned engine technology at the risk of losing out to US and Chinese competitors.

The new batteries will provide us with truly clean motor vehicles and give a powerful boost to solar and wind energy, because millions of cars may form big energy storage systems helping to overcome the inherent intermittences of renewable energies.

Separately, the US defence company Lockheed has announced a breakthrough in fusion energy. Within a year it will build a test reactor to be followed five years later by a prototype of a 100 MW reactor of tiny dimensions (2×3 meter!).

Assuming the problems linked to nuclear fission, in particular safety and waste storage, to be solved this might usher in an era of non-fossil electricity generation based on wind, solar, biomass and nuclear fusion.

The demand for oil and gas will also fall dramatically as the global car, shipping and possibly even aircraft industry will phase out the internal combustion engine, say by 2050, reinforcing the decline of C02 emissions.

Add to these two technological breakthroughs the introduction of a magnetic super high-speed train by the Japanese railways until 2045.

Running at a speed of up to 500 km/h the train will largely replace domestic air transport, also a significant source of C02 emissions. The Japanese industry will no doubt export the new train to other parts of the earth, from North America, to Brazil, Argentina, Russia and Europe, with the consequence that there too it is likely to replace domestic air traffic on distances of less than 1500 km.

The news from Singapore, USA and Japan unfortunately show that Europe has lost its momentum in coming up with courageous technical and political solutions both to tackle climate change!

We are closer than ever to technical solutions allowing for a largely emission-free future. By establishing strict emission targets heads of government will help accelerate the technological breakthroughs that are arising on the horizon.

In conclusion, one year ahead of the World Climate Conference in Paris, there is reason for guarded optimism, provided policy makers will show the courage to fix ambitious long-term targets and avoid getting again lost in minutiae.

Brussels 20.10 2014 Eberhard Rhein


Posted by on 24/10/14

An einem Klimagipfel teilnehmen zu müssen erinnert an Zähneputzen: Es ist wichtig, aber lästig.Lange schritt Angela Merkel beim Klimaschutz voran. Teils so forsch, dass sie sich den Titel Klimakanzlerin einfing. Jetzt ist das Geschrei groß: Statt bis 2030 EU-weit 30 Prozent Energie zu sparen, stehen nur noch 27 Prozent auf dem Papier. Merkel verrate ihren Titel, monieren Kritiker. Und tatsächlich verlässt Deutschland seine Vorreiterrolle als oberster Klimaschützer. Dies aber ist kein Einknicken gegenüber Kritikern wie Großbritannien oder Polen, sondern Strategie: Den Weltklimagipfel 2015 in Paris im Blick, weiß Merkel, wie wichtig die Einigung auf EU-Ebene ist. Nur wenn sich die 28 Staaten trotz unterschiedlicher Ansprüche verständigen, kann dies Beispiel geben für Paris.