In December, most of the countries of the world will meet in Paris at the 21st annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change. COP21 ‘will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.’
When the Copenhagen conference (COP15) ended in disagreement in 2009, few people thought that the increase in renewable energy would be anything like sufficient to prevent global temperatures rising more than 2°C. But things have dramatically changed in the intervening six years.
Solar power and other renewables have increased dramatically and the technology for the cleaner burning of fossil fuels, including carbon capture and storage, has developed rapidly.
But perhaps the most important change has been the attitudes of governments. No longer is it a case of Europe and other developed countries moving in the direction of renewables, while developing countries, and, in particular, China and India, argue that their economic development requires a rapid expansion of coal-fired power stations. Now China, India and many other emerging countries are rapidly developing their renewable sectors. This is partly driven by the fall in the costs of renewables and partly by worries that climate change will directly effect them. Now the ‘pro-coal’ countries are in a minority.
And industry is realising that significant profit is to be made from the development and installation of power plants using renewable energy. This is driving both R&D and investment. As the Telegraph article, linked below, points out, in 2009 ‘the International Energy Agency (IEA) was still predicting that solar power would struggle to reach 20 gigawatts by now. Few could have foretold that it would in fact explode to 180 gigawatts – over three times Britain’s total power output – as costs plummeted, and that almost half of all new electricity installed in the US in 2013 and 2014 would come from solar’.
So is this a good news story? Will real progress be made at COP21 in Paris? The articles explore the issues.
Paris climate deal to ignite a $90 trillion energy revolution The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (28/10/15)
OP21 deal critical for low-carbon economy Japan Times, Carlos Ghosn (29/10/15)
Is Solar Without Subsidies Now Viable? Oilprice.com, Michael McDonald (22/10/15)
The road to Paris and beyond Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (LSE), Rodney Boyd, Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern (August 2015)
Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (October 2015)
- What are the drivers for a move from fossil fuels to renewables? Are they similar dirvers in both developed and developing countries?
- What externalities are involved in energy production (a) from fossil fuels; (b) from renewables?
- What policies can be adopted to internalise the externalities?
- What are the merits and problems of a carbon trading scheme? What determines its effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions?
- Why are more and more investors moving into the renewable energy sector? Could this become a speculative bubble? Explain.
- How might game theory help to explain the process and outcomes of international negotiations over climate change and energy use?
Is slower economic growth a cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Apparently not – at least according to two studies: one by DIW Econ, a German institute for economic research, and the other, earlier this year, by the International Energy Association (see reports below).
The IEA study found that, despite global GDP having grown by 6.4% in 2014, global emissions remained flat. The DIW Econ study found that from 2004 to 2014, OECD countries as a whole grew by 16% while cutting fossil fuel consumption by 6% and greenhouse gas emissions by 6.4%.
But what does this mean? If growth accelerated, what would happen to greenhouse gas emissions? Would they begin to rise again? Probably.
The point is that various developments, largely independent of economic growth have been reducing the greenhouse gas emissions/GDP ratio. These developments include: technological advances in energy generation; the switch to alternative fuels in many countries, thanks, in large part to lower renewable energy costs; increased energy efficiency by consumers; and a continuing move from energy-intensive manufacturing to less energy-intensive services.
So if governments forced more radical cuts in greenhouse gases, would this reduce the rate of economic growth or have no effect? For a given level of technological advancement, the initial effect would probably be a reduction in economic growth. But to the extent that this encouraged further investment in renewables and energy saving, it might even stimulate economic growth over the longer term, especially if it helped to bring lower energy prices.
A big problem in decoupling economic growth from fossil fuel usage is that developing countries, which are taking a growing share of world manufacturing, are more heavily dependent on coal than most developed countries. But even here there seems to be some hope. China, the biggest manufacturer in the developing world, is rapidly increasing its use of renewables. As the IEA press release states:
In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal.
If the world is to tackle global warming by making significant cuts in greenhouse gases, there must be a way for developing countries to continue growing while making less use of fossil fuels.
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t slow global economic growth — report The Guardian, Bruce Watson (26/9/15)
Turning point: Decoupling Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Economic Growth DIW Econ, Lars Handrich, Claudia Kemfert, Anselm Mattes, Ferdinand Pavel, Thure Traber (September 2015)
World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (June 2015)
- What are the possible causal relationships between cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of economic growth?
- What incentive mechanisms can governments or other agencies adopt to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without reducing economic growth?
- Can a cap and trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme help to achieve a given level of emissions reduction at minimum cost to economic growth? Explain.
- How might the developed world support developing countries in moving to a low carbon technology?
- What factors lie behind the falling costs of renewable energy? Are these the same factors that lie behind the falling cost of oil?
- What political problems might hinder the greater production of renewable energy?
- How might an economist set about determining a socially optimal amount of fossil fuel production? What conceptual and philosophical problems might there be in agreeing what is meant by a social optimum?
The UK government has just given the go-ahead for the building of two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The contract to build and run the power station will go to EDF, the French energy company.
The power station is estimated to cost some £14 billion to build. It would produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity. Currently the 16 nuclear reactors in the UK produce around 19%. But all except for Sizewell B in Suffolk are due to close by 2023, although the lives of some could be extended. There is thus a considerable energy gap to fill in the coming years.
Several new nuclear power stations were being considered to help fill this gap, but with rising capital costs, especially following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, potential investors pulled out of other negotiations. Hinkley Point is the only proposal left. It’s not surprising that the government wants it to go ahead.
All that remains to agree is the price that EDF can charge for the electricity generated from the power station. This price, known as the ‘strike price’, is a government-guaranteed price over the long term. EDF is seeking a 40-year deal. Some low carbon power stations, such as nuclear and offshore wind and wave power stations, have high capital costs. The idea of the strike price is to reduce the risks of the investment and make it easier for energy companies to estimate the likely return on capital.
But the strike price, which will probably be agreed at around £95 per megawatt hour (MWh), is roughly double the current wholesale price of electricity. EDF want a price of around £100 per MWh, which is estimated to give a return on capital of around 10%. The government was hoping to agree on a price nearer to £80 per MWh. Either way, this will require a huge future subsidy on the electricity generated from the plant.
There are several questions being asked about the deal. Is the strike price worth paying? Are all the costs and benefits properly accounted for, including environmental costs and benefits and safety issues? Being an extremely long-term project, are uncertainties over costs, performance of the plant, future market prices for electricity and the costs of alternative forms of power generation sufficiently accounted for? Will the strike price contravene EU competition law? Is the timescale for construction realistic and what would be the consequences of delays? The articles consider these questions and raise a number of issues in planning very long-term capital projects.
Hinkley Point: Britain’s second nuclear age given green light as planning permission is approved for first of new generation atomic power stations Independent, Michael McCarthy (19/3/13)
Will they or won’t they? New nuclear hangs in the balance ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg (19/3/13)
Hinkley Point C: deal or no deal for UK nuclear? The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (19/3/13)
New nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C is approved BBC News (20/3/13)
Britain’s Plans for New Nuclear Plant Approach a Decisive Point, 4 Years Late New York Times, Stanley Reed and Stephen Castle (15/3/13)
Nuclear power plans threatened by European commission investigation The Guardian (14/3/13)
New Hinkley Point nuclear power plant approved by UK government Wired, Ian Steadman (19/3/13)
Renewable energy providers to help bear cost of new UK nuclear reactors The Guardian, Damian Carrington (27/3/13)
Europe backs Hinkley nuclear plant BBC News (8/10/14)
Environmental permitting of Hinkley Point C Environment Agency
NNB Generation Company Limited, Radioactive Substances Regulations, Environmental Permit Application for Hinkley Point C: Chapter 7, Demonstration of Environmental Optimisation EDF
Greenhouse Gas Emission of European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) Nuclear Power Plant Technology: A Life Cycle Approach Journal of Sustainable Energy & Environment 2, J. Kunakemakorn, P. Wongsuchoto, P. Pavasant, N. Laosiripojana (2011)
- Compare the relative benefits of a construction subsidy and a subsidised high strike price from the perspectives of (a) the government (b) EDF.
- What positive and negative externalities are involved in nuclear power generation?
- What difficulties are there in valuing these externalities?
- What is meant by catastrophic risk? Why is this difficult to take account of in any cost–benefit analysis?
- What is meant by a project’s return on capital? Explain how discounted cash flow techniques are used to estimate this return.
- What should be taken into account in deciding the rate of discount to use?
- How should the extra jobs during construction of the plant and then in the running of the plant be valued when making the decisions about whether to go ahead?