IICEC Director Prof. Carmine Difiglio's article on Masterpieces Magazine

Reducing GHG Emissions
An Interview with the Director of Sabancı University’s Istanbul International Center for
Energy and Climate, Prof. Dr. Carmine Difiglio

Climate change is a world-wide problem that cannot be solved by one country acting alone. The IPCC report, published in October, 2018 emphasizes this point. While the IPCC report concludes that it is technologically possible to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficiently to avoid severe damage from climate change, it warns that the “lack of global cooperation, lack of governance of the energy and land transformation, and growing resource-intensive consumption are key impediments for achieving 1.5°C-consistent pathways.” The report also points out that the countries that are going to be least able to adapt to climate change are in the developing world. Consequently, failing to achieve the necessary emissions reductions will fall hardest on the poorest populations. The report also sets an even more ambitious target that will be needed to avoid severe consequences of climate change. This new target would only allow for a 1.5°C increase of global mean temperatures by 2100 replacing the 2°C consensus from prior IPCC reports.

Since the UN and world leaders have payed attention to this problem since 1990, coordinated action such as the Kyoto Agreement and, more recently, the Paris Acord, have only recently affected the trajectory of emissions growth. Past policies have been most successful in improving and reducing the cost of clean energy technologies. Cost reductions in renewables, including wind and solar, have transformed generating technologies that used to be the most expensive options to the most cost competitive. Solar PVs are still experiencing cost reductions and will soon be the least expensive source of electricity in many countries. The importance of these cost reductions cannot be overestimated as policies that increase the cost of energy services are very difficult to sustain. When clean energy choices are the least expensive, market forces are harnessed to achieve emission reductions. Equally important to clean energy production is the efficient use of energy. Energy efficiency could double between now and 2040 without adding additional economic cost after energy savings are considered. This remains one of the most important areas for government policies as markets are not as efficient in encouraging energy efficiency as they are in promoting least-cost clean power.

The outlook provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA) is encouraging. Worldwide policies that are currently anticipated should limit the growth of energy-sector GHG emissions in 2040 by about 13% (2040) while satisfying the world’s increasing demand for energy services . If emissions reductions are achieved thereafter, currently anticipated policies should keep the global mean temperature increase to 2.7°C by 2100. As this is not sufficient to avoid the consequences predicted by the IPCC, a more demanding IEA sustainable development scenario would reduce GHG emissions by 47% in 2040 and, staying thereafter on a trajectory to zero net GHG emissions, would keep the change of global temperatures below 2°C. This scenario requires, in order of importance, much more energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and nuclear power. Fortunately, the cost of this scenario is not significantly different than the less ambitious scenario because the reduced cost of fuel and more efficient use of final energy pay for the increased investment needed to achieve a sustainable energy future.

Other advantages are also achieved. For example, the sustainable development path would retire the old-technology coal plants that cause severe air pollution in many of China’s cities. China’s Blue Sky initiatives do more to motivate investments in clean energy than China’s commitments to reduce its GHG emissions. Clean energy becomes a win-win for each goal.

Other win-win goals are reducing GHG emissions and achieving energy security. This is particularly evident in Turkey’s energy policies and achievements. One of Turkey’s energy policy pillars is localization. Localization includes primary energy resources and the production of energy technologies. As a result of these policies, Turkey has already met its 2023 goal to produce 31% of its electricity from renewables by achieving 50% renewable generating capacity. Consequently, Turkey has increased its 2023 goal to 50% renewable production. It is accomplishing this with new tenders that will motivate private investment in wind, solar and geothermal energy. These tenders include gigawatt-scale investments of solar energy and battery storage, onshore wind and offshore wind. The tenders also require Turkish production of capital equipment and employment of Turkish engineers. Consequently, the tenders not only reduce Turkey’s reliance on imported energy but reduce Turkey’s imports of electrical generating equipment and enhance Turkey’s industrial competitiveness. This is another example where the more urgent priorities to achieve energy security and economic development support strong action to fight climate change.

If reducing GHG emissions, reducing local air pollution and improving energy security are the first three goals for a global energy future, increasing worldwide energy access, is the fourth goal. Recent data show that 14% of the world’s population lack access to electricity and 37% lack access to clean fuels. Since access to modern energy is a prerequisite to human well-being, reducing these percentages should be an urgent global goal especially for the rapidly growing populations where energy poverty is a problem (for example, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Bangladesh, India and the Philippines). Renewable energy is uniquely suited to the provision of energy services to these populations. It has the right scale and does not rely on major transmission grids to connect power plants to customers. By installing micro-grids and distributed solar to fight energy poverty, GHG emissions are also reduced.  This is another example of achieving reduced GHG emissions in order to achieve a different objective.

My primary worry is that we will not sufficiently take advantage of energy efficiency. It is most important way to keep GHG emissions on a safe trajectory. But it is not a commodity like power where low cost produces high investment. Energy efficiency is often overlooked as a subsidiary characteristic in energy-using equipment. It would be much worse now without the regulations and labeling programs that emerged during the 1970s. Turkey has strong policies to improve motor vehicle fuel efficiency with a tax system that discourages inefficient light-duty vehicles and Turkey’s appliance market is integrated with Europe’s. Energy appliance programs in Europe and elsewhere are especially important and are regularly updated to account for new efficiency technologies. Fuel efficiency programs in the United States and Europe are important but they have not halted a worrying trend towards purchase of SUVs and, especially in the United States, large pick-up trucks (Turkey’s tax system is more effective in this regard). Most worrisome is the housing sector. It is the largest untapped resource for energy efficiency. Governments have not been able to ensure that existing buildings are sufficiently retrofitted and that new buildings take advantage of available cost-effective energy efficiency technologies.

I remain hopeful that world-wide GHG emissions will achieve a trajectory that avoids severe environmental damage for future generations. I emphasize the alignment of other policy goals with reducing GHG emissions because solving those goals are more politically urgent than doing something that may happen in the future. It is too easy to “kick the can down the road” with the idea that the next government in power will be able to solve the problem. As the recent IPCC report emphasizes, it is too late to kick this can any further. Urgent action is required now. However, if urgent action to prevent dangerous levels of atmospheric GHG concentrations also solve more immediate national objectives such as achieving energy security, reducing urban air pollution and providing energy access to those that don’t have it, the political likelihood of achieving global action is much greater. Each country has different circumstances as to how these multiple concerns can affect their policies. China’s top priority right now is to clean up severe air pollution in many of its cities - this will be a strong driver to reduce its GHG emissions. Turkey’s top priority right now is to improve its energy security and reduce reliance on foreign sources of energy - as I mentioned - this is already motivating great strides in renewable energy. Among India’s top priorities is to provide energy access to a rapidly growing population that will soon surpass China’s. This is an opportunity for renewable energy in India.

I want to leave a positive picture. Strong action against climate change is possible, especially as the technological groundwork to support strong action has been largely achieved and will continue to accelerate. Without the huge reductions in the cost of wind and solar that have already been achieved, we would be in a much more precarious situation. By continuing to apply renewable energy and other low GHG technologies, for example, carbon capture and nuclear power, we can achieve a sustainable path for clean energy supply. If we can match this progress with enough improvements in energy efficiency, the outlook is good.

Note: In a previous appointment at the International Energy Agency, Professor Difiglio established IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives model and project (launched in 2001).Energy Technology Perspectives continues to this day as a flagship IEA publication by showing what technologies and investments are needed to meet G20 and Paris climate goals.