This article was originally published in Outreach Magazine. The original can be found here.

The latest UN climate negotiations are underway in Doha, Qatar but the talks need a stronger focus on energy's role in climate change. (Source: UNFCCC)

More than half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels for energy supply. Even excluding traditional biomass, fossil fuel combustion accounts for 90 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Against this background, it is surprising how limited a role energy is playing in the ongoing climate negotiations. And yet this discussion could be instrumental in refocusing the debate about what is necessary and what is possible in both the areas of climate mitigation and adaptation—bringing it back down from the current inscrutable spheres of negotiation tracks, subsidiary bodies, parallel sessions, ad-hoc working groups, and special meetings (which, let’s be frank, nobody outside the negotiators understands anymore).

First, a focus on energy shows how far we are from solving the climate crisis. Energy-related CO2 emissions grew 3.2 percent in 2011 to more than 31 gigatons—despite the economic crisis. We know that if we don’t want to lose track of the 2-degree Celsius threshold of maximum warming that would hopefully avoid major disasters, energy emissions must decline by at least one third to 20 gigatons in 2035, despite expectations that energy demand might double in the same time frame.

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Climate Change, COP18, Doha, emissions reductions, energy, UNFCCC

Figures for the first half of 2012 show a remarkable shift in U.S. energy trends. Coal-fired power generation has plummeted to 20 percent below last year’s level and 31 percent below the peak reached in 2007.  Far from being the fossil fuel of the future (according to many industry leaders and even some environmentalists) American coal may now be in an irreversible downward spiral.

Coal’s decline has two main causes.  Electricity use has virtually leveled off in the United States since the great recession began in 2008, leaving many U.S. utilities with excess generating capacity and more latitude to choose which of their power plants will operate.  Meanwhile, the rapid decline in U.S. natural gas prices this year—averaging the equivalent of $13 per barrel of oil—has allowed utilities to fire up some of their newer and more efficient gas plants while idling many of their coal plants.

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Climate Change, coal, electricity, emissions reductions, natural gas, United States

Climate scientists are getting their fair share of surprises this year, from the record-breaking ice melt in the Arctic to the fact that first-quarter U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have hit their lowest point since 1992. CO2 emissions from energy consumption for the January-March period fell to 1.34 billion metric tons, down 8 percent from a year ago. While the depressed economy and rising renewable energy generation have contributed to emissions reductions in the past few years, the early 2012 low-point is due mainly to a combination of three factors: the relatively warm winter, reduced gasoline demand, and the continued decline in coal-fired electricity.

Natural gas and wind dominated new capacity additions in the first half of 2012 (Source: EIA)

The declining demand for coal power is especially significant. Although emissions from natural gas and petroleum each dropped nearly 3 percent from the same period in 2011 (mainly because of lower heating demands in the mild winter), coal emissions fell 18 percent, to their lowest point since 1986.

The first half of 2012 also saw significant additions of new renewable energy capacity, although natural gas plants accounted for the vast majority of new capacity in states that traditionally rely on coal power. The low price of natural gas, bolstered by the U.S. shale gas boom, has driven many power producers to shift from dirtier coal generation to cleaner natural gas-fired power plants. When burned, natural gas emits around half of the CO2emissions as coal combustion.

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Climate Change, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, natural gas, United States

Total subsidies for renewable energy stood at $66 billion in 2010, but are still dwarfed by the total value of global fossil fuel subsidies estimated at between $775 billion and more than $1 trillion in 2012, according to new research conducted for our Vital Signs Online service. Although the total subsidies for renewable energy are significantly lower than those for fossil fuels, they are higher per kilowatt-hour if externalities are not included in the calculations.

Estimates based on 2009 energy production numbers placed renewable energy subsidies between 1.7¢ and 15¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) while subsidies for fossil fuels were estimated at around 0.1–0.7¢ per kWh. Unit subsidy costs for renewables are expected to decrease as technologies become more efficient and the prices of wholesale electricity and transport fuels rise.

The production and consumption of fossil fuels add costs to society in the form of detrimental impacts on resource availability, the environment, and human health. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimates that fossil fuel subsidies cost the United States $120 billion in pollution and related health care costs every year. But these costs are not reflected in fossil fuel prices.

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developing countries, development, emissions reductions, energy, energy subsidies, fossil fuels, renewable energy, subsidies

Last week, I attended a Washington event on Arctic energy; I was hoping for some insights on the challenges ahead, namely greenhouse gas emissions, diplomatic tensions, and indigenous rights. Since Arctic exploitation hasn’t yet enjoyed a “Keystone XL” level of public attention, it seemed healthy to get some first-hand information from Arctic experts, as major oil players like Shell are getting closer to full-scale commercial exploitation. After all, a generation’s treasure chest often turns out to be another generation’s ticking bomb.

Instead, I ended up listening to lengthy presentations by analysts, consultants, fellows and executives talking about climate change “removing constraints”, “effective diplomatic work” being made, and “supply chain complexity” hampering the process, for a solid two hours. There’s a saying in the marketing industry that ‘eco-friendly’ should be the third button to push when advertising a product, after, say, affordability or quality. In this discussion, ‘eco-friendly’ was clearly the fourth or fifth button, if it was mentioned at all. One should have expected this, however, as the event invitation used no apparent irony when announcing in the same sentence that Arctic experts would examine “what nations can do to protect the environment andincrease production” (my emphasis).

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arctic, Climate Change, coal, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy security, low-carbon, peak oil, renewable energy, Unconventional oil, United States

Following up on the recent blog I wrote about low-lying island nations, I spent part of last week getting a more direct experience with one of these countries. The United States Institute of Peace welcomed former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed for a conference on Monday, June 25th in Washington, D.C. Nasheed was ousted last February by a coup under controversial circumstances. Though he expressed regret over losing the unique stature and influence he had as head of state, Nasheed is still extremely active in the country, pushing for new democratic elections and actively promoting “The Island President”, a documentary narrating his story and seeking to cast light on his unique fight for the survival of his country and the establishment of a functioning democracy after centuries of authoritarian rule.

“Anni”, as he is better known by people of the archipelago, has not left behind his ideals in the presidential office, particularly with regard to climate change. When he touched on the topic of climate change at last week’s conference, the former President called it, as he very often does, “a very serious issue happening right now.” With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and the world’s lowest natural peak at an astounding 2.4 meters, the archipelago is indeed at the forefront of climate disruption and sea-level rise. Attempting to shame the rest of the world into taking action to mitigate carbon emissions, in 2008 Nasheed launched an ambitious plan for carbon neutrality. The plan seemed achievable: it tapped into the archipelago’s ample wind and solar energy resources, completing the mix with biomass to meet the modest energy needs of this country of 400,000 people, which has a low reliance on electricity and (understandably) almost no cars. Even the country’s most prominent and energy-consuming economic sector, high-end tourism, started bringing itself up to speed. Nasheed’s government planned to offset aviation emissions, which make up the lion’s share of the archipelago’s carbon footprint,  by using the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. Finally, as “The Island President” abundantly documents, the Maldives also took the lead in making the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) a force to reckon with in international climate summits.

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climate, Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy, energy policy, Green Technology, low-carbon, low-lying island nations, Maldives, Nasheed, renewable energy, sustainable development, sustainable prosperity, UNFCCC

With the United Nations “Rio+20” Conference fast approaching, the word “sustainable” is more present than ever – including in our own State of the World 2012 publication – sometimes to the point of excess. For low-lying island nations, however, “sustainability” is more than the mild, consensual definition of the United Nations: it is really about maintaining the environmental conditions necessary to sustain human life as we know it. Many countries, regions, and cities fear the potential consequences of runaway climate change, be it desertification, droughts, or increasingly frequent storms. What makes the cases of countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and the Maldives so unique is that their very existence as sovereign states is at stake, and some of their younger citizens might live to see that existence brought to an end – the IPCC (2007) has predicted 0.5 to 1.5 meters of sea-level rise before the century is over.

For low-lying island nations, climate change and sea-level rise are not really a matter for debate, but already a threatening feature of everyday life (Source: The Atlantic.com)

Whether that prediction turns out to be overly optimistic or gloomy is still to be determined, but low-lying island nations are not passively waiting to find out. Despite their remarkably low carbon-footprints, they are trying to lead by example when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions: while an international treaty would only, by the timeline set at the 2011 climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, come into force in 2020, the Maldives and Tuvalu (among others) have pledged to become carbon-neutral by that date. But these nations have understood that due to natural – as well as political – inertia, more emissions and increased sea-level rise are already locked in. This is the basic reasoning behind the islands’ adaptation policies, which are only as varied as they are extreme. For instance, though the President of Kiribati Anote Tong admitted it sounded “like something from science fiction”, the country seriously considered building offshore floating islands and higher seawalls last year, for a total cost of about US$ 3 billion – quite a challenge for a country with a GDP of US$ 200 million in 2011 (about US$ 6,000 per capita).

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Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, green economy, Kiribati, low-carbon, low-lying island states, Maldives, negotiations, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development, Tuvalu, UNFCCC

As we described last week, there is a growing consensus that the time is right for a global shift to sustainable energy solutions. The Worldwatch Institute, in partnership with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), is taking a leading role in facilitating this shift through the creation of the Renewable Development Index.

Countries enacting renewable energy support policies or targets as of 2011 (source: IPCC SRREN, 2011)

Countries worldwide are recognizing the significant role that renewable energy can play in their national development. As of early 2011, nearly 100 countries had set targets for wind, solar, biomass, and other renewable energy sources. Governments aim to utilize these technologies to meet a host of development priorities, including reducing carbon emissions, expanding energy access, enhancing energy security, and creating new jobs and industry opportunities. At both the national and sub-national levels, they are using a variety of policies and measures to support centralized and decentralized renewable energy installations and to work toward achieving wider national development goals.

Despite the many forces working in favor of renewables, growth within the sector remains constrained. Although renewable energy technologies accounted for roughly half of the newly installed power generation capacity during 2010, they were responsible for only 16 percent of global final energy consumption and close to 20 percent of electricity generation that year. Government support policies, adopted by 118 countries as of early 2011, continue to be one of the most significant forces driving renewable energy deployment.

To more efficiently harness the potential of renewables to meet national goals, decision makers must have a better understanding of the effectiveness of support policies in overcoming existing barriers. Countries continue to face challenges in the renewables sector, including gaining public acceptance and buy-in, mobilizing financing, attracting investment, building local capacity, and facilitating collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Worldwatch is partnering with IRENA to help governments develop policies aimed at best utilizing their renewable energy potential as a way to meet national growth and development goals. As a first step, the project seeks to identify barriers constraining renewable energy deployment. It will then develop strategies that can help policymakers overcome those hurdles. Finally, the project aims to develop a set of renewable energy indicators, with the goal of helping countries assess the effectiveness and efficiency of renewable support programs. Because there is no one-size-fits-all policy for promoting renewable energy, fully inclusive indicators can help to inform the policy community in a more objective manner.

In the development arena, well-designed high-level indicators, such as the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), have been influential in shifting the discourse away from one based solely on domestic economic growth, providing the basis for a deeper understanding of national progress toward overarching development goals. The Renewables Development Index aims to achieve a similar goal in the energy arena, steering the discourse away from conventional fossil fuel energy usage and toward cost-effective and more environmentally sound approaches to meeting global energy needs.

Worldwatch has actively engaged key actors from leading institutions in the international energy community on this initiative. Through a series of interviews, meetings, and workshops, the Institute’s Climate & Energy team will facilitate the development of this new and influential tool.

When completed, the analysis based on this small and concise set of renewable energy indicators will provide governments with a powerful new instrument to better inform domestic policymaking, implementation, and monitoring processes. The indicators can be used for steering investments, refining policy choices, optimizing the impact of limited financial resources, and understanding the outcome of policy results supporting renewable energy development.

This Renewables Development Index will fill an important void in the landscape of sustainability indicators and will help countries in their important transition to a sustainable energy future.

Evan Musolino is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental research organization. Alexander Ochs is Director of the Climate and Energy Program at Worldwatch.

Climate Change, emissions reductions, finance, green economy, low-carbon, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development

Energy is at the very foundation of modern economies. Since the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago, all countries—if at a quite different pace—have developed on the back of the production and burning of fossil fuels. There is no doubt that the comfortable lives many of us live today would not be possible without the fossil-fueled development of the past. But the merits of fossil fuels now seem less and less convincing.

Renewable energy technologies, such as solar PV, offer the potential to benefit countries around the world. (source: Flickr user Magharebia)

First, take subsidies. Currently, we throw about 10–12 times more taxpayer money at fossil fuels than we put into renewables—and those are just direct subsidies. In addition, local air and water pollution and related health consequences cost trillions of dollars worldwide. The U.S. National Research Council estimates the “hidden” costs of fossil fuels in the United States (the real costs to society that are not reflected in the fuels’ market prices) at $120 billion annually. The Chinese government believes pollution and related healthcare costs amount to 10 percent of that country’s GDP.

Then there is the volatility of fossil fuel markets, which has arguably led to enormous economic instability in the recent past. Just to give an idea of what this volatility means to some nations: an increase in the world oil price of just $10 can mean a decrease in the GDP of some small nations of 2–3 percent.

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Climate Change, emissions reductions, finance, low-carbon, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, solar power, sustainable development

The public transportation system in Medellín, Colombia, has proven to be one of the most successful transit systems in the world. It not only reduces the city’s energy consumption and carbon footprint, making the city more environmentally sustainable, but also drives positive social and economic change for Medellín as a whole.

Medellín metro system. (Source: http://www.colombia.travel/en/international-tourist/multimedia/photo-gallery/medellin)

Medellín received the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. ITDP is a global consortium of organizations that works with cities worldwide, mainly in developing countries, to provide solutions for their public transportation systems, tackling carbon emissions, poverty, and social inequality. The previous award winners are Guangzhou, China, in 2011 and Ahmedabad, India, in 2010.

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Climate Change, emissions reductions, natural gas, Public transportation, sustainable development