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Bridging climate science and policy making

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 10:29

UNEP’s role in Paris was to help countries make a bridge between climate science and policy, identify and analyse options, and gain confidence to move on their climate commitments.  Mark Radka, Head, UNEP’s Climate and Technology Branch discusses the organisation’s role in launching the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative

radka UNEP

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015 was the hottest year on record, but it is also the year in which nations finally agreed on a comprehensive approach to address the growing threat posed by climate change.  The Paris agreement is not perfect, but it is a much needed victory for multilateralism and creates a good foundation on which to build progressively stronger action to reduce emission of greenhouse gases and adapt to a changing climate.  As some observers have noted, Paris is the “end of the beginning”; attention must now turn to the actions needed to make the Paris promise a reality.

Despite the claims of an increasingly isolated fringe, climate science is well established and is getting more robust.  The growing evidence of greater climate variability is increasingly shaping public opinion, and most negotiators went to Paris knowing their citizens wanted an agreement.  Many governments drew confidence from the growing number of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions already underway.  By the time the COP finished, cities, states and regional governments, the private sector, and other non-state actors had registered almost 11,000 climate change commitments with the UN’s Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) database.  The importance of this action at the state, city, and individual level is hard to overstate; it is particularly crucial in motivating additional effort to reduce emissions in the roughly four year period before the Paris agreement enters into force.

The record-breaking investments into renewable energy and low-carbon technologies worldwide – almost $270 billion in 2014 – are sending powerful signals to governments that technologies to reduce emissions in the energy sector exist and have moved beyond being merely affordable to a point where they are less expensive than fossil fuel alternatives in many locations.  In recent years, over half of capacity additions globally have been from renewable sources, driven by falling prices that have made utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind cost competitive with fossil fuel-based power generation.  Over the last five years, the cost of solar PV modules has fallen by about 75% and both wind and solar power increasingly beat fossil fuel options in head-to-head competitions.   Decentralised renewable energy hybrid systems are also coming of age and are particularly attractive for rural energisation.  Good renewable energy resources in many countries, declining technology and project costs, and the fast speed of renewables deployment make a “renewables rich” energy future both feasible and logical.

The bottom-up approach to commitments of Paris worked in favour of an agreement.  By the midpoint of the two-week negotiations, 185 countries had submitted so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), their commitment to take mitigation and adaptation measures that “represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party.”  INDCs will now be turned into NDCs, and will be ratcheted upward every five years through a review mechanism.  Pledging, reporting, and the review form the heart of the new approach.

The INDCs are certainly not sufficient to keep the world below a 2°C rise in temperature, but it is significant that going into the Paris COP almost all countries made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Some INDCs are outcome-based – that is they specify actual levels of greenhouse gas reductions – while others are action-based and take the form of commitments to enact policies or undertake projects.

Many include both mitigation and adaptation components, and more than 100 countries have included adaptation in their INDCs. Fifteen countries included so-called short-lived climate pollutants or made reference to reducing air pollution or other benefits in their INDC submissions, evidence that they are now putting climate actions in a broader sustainable development context.  That said, many INDCs are aspirational, and the poorest countries in particular will require help to make them a reality.

UNEP’s role in Paris was to help countries make a bridge between climate science and policy, identify and analyse options, and gain confidence to move on their climate commitments.  As an example, at COP21, world leaders launched the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, a transformative, Africa-owned and led effort to accelerate and scale-up the harnessing of the continent’s huge renewable energy potential.

UNEP helped developed the Initiative, which aims to put in place at least 10GW of new and additional renewable energy generation capacity by 2020 and mobilize the African potential to install at least 300 GW of capacity by 2030.  The AREI was not formally part of the deal but with over $10 billion in funding committed at Paris it is indicative of the spirit of finding common agendas that characterized the negotiations, in this case one linking developed countries’ commitment to help poorer countries reduce emissions with African countries’ priority for more – and in this case cleaner – energy.

Half of the African population lacks access to modern energy – rising to nine out of ten people in rural areas – and yet the continent has immense renewable energy resources.  Poor infrastructure, insufficient investment, fragmented approaches, weak institutions, a low human skill base have so far kept much of Africa un-electrified.  Africa needs more energy, and decisions made today in terms of the mix of fossil or renewable energy will determine its future emissions.

African countries have a rare opportunity for technology leapfrogging and moving onto a modern energy path that brings energy independence and reduces their carbon footprint, decoupling growth in electricity supply from GHG emissions.  The AREI’s goal, then, is to develop efficient, reliable, cost effective, and environmentally friendly energy infrastructure that reduces poverty and drives vigorous sustainable development of the continent.  It’s a good example of what the Paris agreement can accomplish going forward.

As the countries of the world left le Bourget there was cause for optimism that the Paris agreement will forestall the worst impacts of climate change and preserve our earth for future generations.  But it will require much hard work, and each of us will have to do our part to bring about the better future that lies within our grasp

Mark Radka heads the UN Environment Programme’s Energy, Climate, and Technology Branch, where he is responsible for managing UNEP’s efforts to link the global energy and environment agendas.  UNEP’s work in this area focuses on reducing emission of greenhouse gases through greater use of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency.