Doha is worthwhile, but real decisions are elsewhere



The irony of the world’s climate change negotiators meeting in Doha this week cannot be lost on anyone taking an interest in climate change.

Qatar is hardly a model of the low carbon economy. With annual per capita carbon emissions of more than 50 tonnes, it has the highest footprint of any nation. The country’s exponential economic growth has been driven by the export of oil, natural gas and other petrochemicals. Its winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup includes plans to fully air condition every new stadium, insulating the players and the crowds from the 40°C+ heat.

But even if it were held in the lowest-emitting of countries, this Conference of the Parties is unlikely to achieve anything meaningful.

Climate change is all about energy: the way we generate and use it for electricity, transport and food production. Energy is the foundation of the global economy. And negotiators working for environment ministers just don’t have the authority to contribute to decisions that affect these dynamics.

If you transform the energy system, you fundamentally transform the global economic system. All the ships crossing the ocean full of sheep and textiles and cars and all the other things on our supermarket shelves or our lounge rooms are moved by fossil fuel. All those planes transporting people around the globe are too. Not all, but most of the lights seen from space are illuminated by electricity from combusted fossil fuel.

It is not hyperbole to conclude that changing the inputs that create this amenity will require the most far-reaching transformation of the energy system since the industrial revolution. And as with the industrial revolution starting in Britain, Belgium and other northern European countries, so the energy transformation will be led by the current major global economic actors.

Understanding the global response to climate change is thus a matter of following political and policy developments in the United States, Japan, Germany and China as much as it is about following the formal UN processes.

Let’s take a closer look at China. It is now home to four of the top five solar photovoltaic manufacturers in the world. Two of the top five wind turbine manufacturers are also Chinese. Ten years ago none of these companies were even in the top ten. Some didn’t even exist.

This change has been rapid, and just as with any other product or commodity, once volumes increase, so prices fall. Just two weeks ago Suntech, the world’s biggest solar PV company, announced that its cost of manufacture will fall 30 per cent in 2012. That is on top of a 75 per cent fall since 2009. For certain consumers, in certain places, and at certain times, solar is rapidly becoming the cheapest way to generate electricity.

And China’s current Five Year Plan has earmarked $1.6 trillion of investment in low carbon infrastructure and technology. The “China 2030” report, released earlier this year by China’s State Council and the World Bank, concludes that China’s national interest is in building a low carbon economy and getting ahead of the competition. The recent energy policy has a series of ambitious renewable energy targets.

Japan is often forgotten in discussion of low carbon development. Yet the world’s third largest economy has long been a leader in energy efficiency. With few primary resources and massive global companies like Canon, Toyota and Sony, it built its post-war economic strength on the basis of technological innovation.

Following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the break down of the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan is shifting its energy system away from nuclear and towards renewables, energy efficiency, and modern power grids able to manage demand.

Driven by policies such as these, the changes in the energy and electricity business have the potential to be as rapid as the changes in information and communications technology. Large-scale electricity generation distributed to our homes, businesses and factories via a lengthy distribution network ending with a plug in the wall might be the equivalent of the old black dial phone owned by the government. Now we can choose our make of mobile phone; choose our plan and the level of service it provides.

As with our phones, we will soon be able to use electricity in different ways, at different times, to manage cost. Businesses with roof space, or the ability to invest in their own electricity generation through technologies such as co-generation, can get into the business of selling their own power back to the grid.

And with Japan and Germany leading this charge, with China on the rise, the economics of electricity will move even faster.

According to Bloomberg, last year was the first when new investment in clean energy overtook coal and gas. In 2004 only $US34 billion was invested in clean energy globally. In 2011 the figure was $280 billion. That is a more than 800% increase.

This is all happening a good deal faster than most predictions. Rhetorical commitments to green growth are fine, but tangible examples of where investment in new local carbon infrastructure has achieved clear environmental and commercial returns is more powerful.

It is easy to be sceptical about Doha. But one shouldn’t allow oneself to therefore become cynical about the UN process. It is far from what it has to become but remains a critical part of the complex three-dimensional jigsaw that is our emerging response to climate change. The agreement reached last year at Durban has maintained the hope that by 2015 we will have a legally binding framework focused on keeping climate change within 2°C.

Climate change is not a problem that can be “solved” by any one meeting at any single point in time. Reducing emissions will be driven by public and political will and a combination of international diplomacy, technological innovation, scaled investment and policy at national, state, and local level. The indications are that this will, driven largely by economic and national interest is growing. Deliberations in Doha this week can only contribute a small amount to strengthening it.