COP21 is solar’s big chance to show what it can offer

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In two months, international negotiators will gather in Paris for the long-awaited COP21 climate conference. Technocratic as the event sounds, on the table is nothing less than a new international agreement to keep global warming within the 2°C generally believed to be the ‘safe’ upper limit to prevent runaway climate change.

Hopes are high that after several failed attempts, Paris 2015 will yield what all but the die-hard climate change deniers have been hoping for now for years: a new legally binding climate change accord to replace the 1997 Kyoto protocol that expires in 2020.

The potential sticking points standing in the way of this are legion. At Copenhagen in 2009, the last COP meeting when expectation was as high as it is now, efforts to secure an agreement failed for a host of reasons, including last-minute interventions by the US and other global power brokers that ultimately scuppered the chances of a deal involving all the world’s nations.

Such issues remain real risks for the talks in Paris later this year, and disappointment has become almost the defining theme of the global climate discussions in recent years. That said, this time round there are a number of reasons to feel things could – just could – go the other way.

One is that in the run-up to Paris, the US and China, the two superpowers that arguably hold the whip hand in deciding whether or not a global deal will materialise, have made a number of joint commitments to reducing emissions. Those may fall short of what could be described as being ambitious, but it’s an encouraging sign that one of the big stumbling blocks in past negotiations is being addressed in advance.

Another major factor is that even compared to the situation six years ago in Copenhagen, the world now has at its disposal a range of tools that offer genuine alternatives to the energy status quo. Technologies such as wind and solar have come on leaps and bounds in the past five years, and by virtue of the huge cost savings they have achieved now stand on the brink of significantly disrupting the incumbent energy system.

Solar in particular has come to the fore as the energy source that offers most hope in achieving the paradigm shift in power generation said to be needed. Leading figures such as the UK’s former chief scientific advisor Sir David King have argued that solar offers humanity perhaps its best chance of solving the climate change problem.

The major barrier standing in the way of solar becoming a driving force in the clean energy revolution many are calling for is now less a technical one and more about awareness and political will. Such has been the pace of change achieved by the solar industry that there is every chance policy makers are simply unaware they have at their fingertips a technology that with the right nurturing could support a fairly rapid transition away from the current carbon-intensive energy system. 

Evidence of this can be found in the ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs), the pledges submitted by governments in the run-up to COP negotiations setting out actions they would take to help keep the planet within the 2°C limit.

According to recent analysis by the Climate Action Tracker website, the INDCs that had been submitted as of the beginning of September would well overshoot the emissions reductions required by 2030 and therefore the global warming safe upper limit. In other words, the ambitions so far communicated by national governments fall well short of what is needed, suggesting an ignorance of what now is technologically possible. Interestingly, one of the few INDC pledges specifically to mention solar is China’s, which sets a goal of 100GW by 2020.

Exactly what is possible is, of course, the subject of much debate. Some of the more radical proposals have suggested a 100-fold increase in solar deployment within seven years. Even the International Energy Agency, a body not exactly known for its radical visions of a world powered by renewables, has set out a post-COP21 energy blueprint that would see emissions peaking well before the measures currently set out in the INDCs would.  

The extent to which any of these differing visions comes to pass will depend on the deal that emerges from the Paris talks later this year. The likelihood that solar will form part of the Paris discussions and whatever agreement is reached seems slim as that process is already well advanced, and in any case the agreement would be more about setting an overall framework for emissions reductions than prescribing specific technologies. But assuming a deal is reached in December, solar will undoubtedly have a key role to play in delivering it, and there various avenues through which this could happen.  

Chief among these is the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, the accord that was announced at the COP20 meeting in Lima, Peru, last December. This set out to mobilise the “state and non-state actors” around the world in supporting the 2015 agreement and the specific measures that will be needed afterwards. As such it looks like the best opportunity for defining concrete actions post-Paris and therefore solar’s most promising route to becoming an intrinsic player in delivering them.

Other programmes that offer hope of accelerating the clean energy agenda post-COP include the ‘Apollo programme’ promoted by Sir David King and other luminaries, including the eminent naturalist Sir David Attenborough. This aims for a concerted international R&D effort to make solar and other renewables cheaper than fossil fuels within a decade. 

And sitting behind such initiatives is the solar industry itself. Earlier this year the veteran solar campaigner Jeremy Leggett argued in a guest article for PV Tech that the solar industry has too often lost the PR battle to the fossil fuel industry, whose seasoned lobbyists are much better versed in pulling the right levers of power to support their ends. Leggett argued that the solar industry must become similarly savvy in the behind-the-scenes dirty work needed to win what he has termed the “carbon war”. 

Between now and COP21 PV Tech understands that plans revealed last year for a ‘global solar council’ are due to come to fruition, bringing together what until now have been the disparate lobbying efforts of individual national or regional solar bodies. Properly executed, this would go a long way towards giving the solar industry a more unified channel through which to represent its interests at a policy level, if not before COP21 then certainly after it.

Through forums such as this and others the solar industry must do what it can before, during and after Paris to speak up and educate the decision makers about what it has to offer. Solar could be the inspiration needed to secure a strong agreement in Paris and, perhaps more importantly, the key enabler in turning that vision into reality once the circus has left town.

Over the coming weeks, PV Tech is planning a series of articles exploring solar’s place in the debate before and after COP21. Our coverage will be brought together in a special section of the website, which you can find here.

The COP21 talks in Paris offer a big opportunity for solar to show what it has to offer in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
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