Paris climate agreement

Kick-starting a global energy revolution

PARIS • The world has just signed one of the most important agreements in history. More than just an environmental pact, the Paris climate change agreement will kick-start a global energy revolution.

Nearly 200 nations in Paris have signed on to an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that the world has to go on a carbon diet, signalling an end to dirty fossil fuels and deforestation, and giving green energy a big boost.

Every year, we pump far more carbon dioxide into the air than the planet's forests and oceans can absorb. Emissions from industry, cars, land clearing and agriculture are creating one giant carbon bubble which is heating up the planet, supercharging our weather and causing seas to rise.

We need to burst the carbon bubble by changing the way we produce energy to power our economies.


A coal-fired power plant in Beijing. China will have to halt building new coal-fired power plants. Coal produces the most carbon dioxide of all fossil fuels and China is the biggest coal producer and consumer, so what it does really matters. PHOTO: REUTERS

We must also become far more efficient in using that energy. This will help get nature back in balance and steadily bring carbon levels down, over decades, to less dangerous levels.

Crucially, Singapore's industries will have to become more efficient. Aviation and shipping, collectively producing 5 per cent of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions and growing, will also have to step up and accelerate emission cuts.

For the targets in the Paris pact to be achieved, the world will have to decarbonise by the end of this century, with emissions peaking before 2030 and then falling sharply.

Sounds scary? Not really. We're already making progress.

But what does this mean to all of us? What changes do we need to make, and what changes will be needed, to ensure the Paris pact isn't another toothless treaty?

For the Paris Agreement to be effective, all nations must start implementing their climate action plans now. Nearly 190 countries submitted their plans, called INDCs or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, ahead of the Paris conference, spelling out their targets or goals to reduce emissions, some by 2025, most by 2030.

 

Collectively, these pledges still put the world on a path towards dangerous climate change. So, under the Paris Agreement, all parties will need to offer new and stronger INDCs at regular intervals.

 

For Singapore, the goal is to use less and less energy, while still growing the economy. This means, for example, getting more people on the nation's growing public transport network and using fewer cars. For those who love their cars, the Government might introduce stronger incentives for electric vehicles.

 

In Paris, there are numerous streets lined with charging points. Singapore should have them, too, in Housing Board estates and office parking areas. Electric vehicles make perfect sense in Singapore.

As the building stock ages, it will be replaced with apartment and office buildings that use far less energy.

There will be more solar panels on rooftops and solar cells could eventually be embedded into the glass curtains of office buildings. Our lighting, air-conditioners and appliances will all use less power.

Crucially, Singapore's industries will have to become more efficient. Aviation and shipping, collectively producing 5 per cent of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions and growing, will also have to step up and accelerate emission cuts. Both sectors are already taking action and the Paris Agreement will likely accelerate separate UN agreements on aviation and shipping emissions.

Nations with much larger land areas and greater renewable energy resources, such as Australia, will have to dramatically step up investment in wind, solar and even wave energy. Australia faces a major challenge because 75 per cent of its electricity comes from coal.

China has already been investing heavily in renewable energy and aims to cap coal consumption, in part to fight severe air pollution. But it will also have to halt building new coal-fired power plants. Coal produces the most CO2 of all fossil fuels and China is the biggest coal producer and consumer, so what it does really matters.

Fortunately, green energy investment keeps growing. Last year, installed wind capacity reached 370 gigawatts globally, including 51 GW of newly installed capacity that year. China is the world's largest producer of wind energy, installing 23 GW of new wind capacity last year. By 2019, the Global Wind Energy Council forecasts total global installed capacity to reach 666 GW, a small but growing percentage of total global power production.

A price on carbon will really help drive investment towards renewables.

So, how much will this energy revolution cost? A lot - but banks, pension funds, university endowments and insurance firms are already shifting away from carbon-intensive assets and embracing cleaner energy.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says achieving the Paris Agreement targets will cost US$16.5 trillion (S$23 trillion) by 2030 - a bit smaller than the current size of the US economy.

The pact set the target of holding global warming to "well below 2 deg C" and urged nations to pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 deg C. This year is already set to be the hottest in recorded history. We're already at about 1 deg C warming from pre-industrial levels, so it's time to get a move on.

Getting to the 1.5 deg C goal would cost even more, the IEA said, because it would mean an even steeper drop in carbon emissions. But that would be worth it to limit the growing impacts of climate change that are threatening food production, water resources as well as seafood supplies, with warmer and more acidic seas destroying coral reefs.

The Paris Agreement has reset the way we view our planet and our future. We already have the technology to create greener economies. But for the pact to succeed, all nations must get to work and steadily strengthen their efforts.

If we fail this time, it really will be too late.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Kick-starting a global energy revolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe