COP24’s Hefty Impact on the Power Sector

Two weeks of intense negotiations at the 24th meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) in Katowice, Poland, last December culminated in agreement on a bulk plan to implement the landmark 2015 Paris agreement to address climate change. However, governments failed to agree on several key measures, including on cooperative approaches that could allow countries to meet goals through market mechanisms and non-market approaches. The impasse means those decisions will be revisited at COP25 in Chile. That event may take place in January 2020, not later this year, as Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera announced on Jan. 11.

At COP24, governments unanimously adopted—after tense negotiations—the Paris agreement rulebook, which will essentially determine how the Paris agreement, reached at COP21, will work. The 133-page guidance document, which will be implemented starting in 2020, outlines rules through which countries will communicate how they will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and meet their nationally determined contributions targets—including how they will calculate, verify, and report emissions, and provide regular updates on mitigation efforts. Among other things, it also specifies how countries will adapt to climate change and account for financial flows.

The achievement is notable because, as observers noted, the conference attended by between 20,000 and 25,000 delegates between Dec. 2 and Dec. 15 was characterized by contentious diplomatic maneuvering. Concerted efforts, for instance, to get countries to “welcome” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) October 2018 report that suggests stronger benefits to limiting the rise in global temperatures to a tighter target of 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2 degrees Celsius—and essentially recognize climate action urgency—were thwarted by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait. The U.S. State Department said it was willing to “note and express appreciation” of the scientists who developed the global climate study, but “not welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report.” Though the report could serve as key scientific input for future policy decisions, the final COP decision text ultimately only “welcomed” its “timely completion.”

As significantly, the countries failed to reach agreement on rules for international cooperation in achieving national pledges, such as with voluntary carbon markets, as outlined in the Paris agreement’s Article 6. The measure was sidelined by Brazil, which spoke out against draft rules to avoid double counting of emission cuts, citing concerns about sovereignty of its forests. According to U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa, the measure will be revisited in Chile at COP25 (after Brazil on Nov. 28 abruptly withdrew its candidacy to host the event, citing budget constraints) because it is integral to “safeguard the integrity” of all countries’ efforts, and ensure that each metric ton (mt) of emissions released into the atmosphere is accounted for.

“From the beginning of the COP, it very quickly became clear that this was one area that still required much work and that the details to operationalize this part of the Paris Agreement had not yet been sufficiently explored,” she explained in a statement. “After many rich exchanges and constructive discussions, the greatest majority of countries were willing to agree and include the guidelines to operationalize the market mechanisms in the overall package. Unfortunately, in the end, the differences could not be overcome,” she said.

Agreement on the rulebook was achieved though some developing countries, led by India, expressed strong reservations over the lack of equity in its global stock-take decision, which requires a review of the impact of countries’ climate change actions every five years starting in 2023. “Equity demands that the vulnerabilities, problems and challenges of the poor and marginalized be prioritized to ensure climate justice,” noted India’s lead negotiator Ravi Shankar Prasad.

In the end, the conference was largely seen as a successful forum on decarbonization, characterized by numerous efforts to launch non-government climate-friendly initiatives, notably related to finance. Nine multilateral development banks, for example, united under a common framework to align their activities with the Paris agreement and ensure financial flows are consistent with low-carbon, climate-resilient development. The World Bank separately announced a new set of climate finance targets for 2021–2025, doubling its current five-year investments to $200 billion for countries to take climate action and increase support for adaption and resilience. Twenty of the world’s top central banks and regulators also aligned efforts under the Network for Greening the Financial System to address climate shocks. Pledges to replenish the Green Climate Fund, which functions under the UNFCCC framework to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change, also ticked up, as Germany and Norway announced they would double their contributions.

Meanwhile, several countries also championed higher ambitions to address climate change. The China-initiated Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDO), an organization pushing for global interconnection of regional power grids, on Dec. 10 unveiled a six-point action plan that promotes benefits of cross-national, cross-continental grid interconnection, and cooperation on electrification development and climate change resilience. The organization said in a statement the plan “attracted extensive attention” as a comprehensive solution that fully aligns with the Paris agreement’s focus on mitigation, adaption, finance, technology, capacity building, and transparency. The action plan, it said, would quadruple clean energy development and accelerate nuclear and renewable consumption, and “drive global carbon emissions… to less than [half] of 1990 in 2050,” with emissions peaking around 2025.

Ahead of COP24, the European Commission also unveiled its 2050 Net-Zero GHG Climate Strategy. The European Union (EU’s) long-term vision for a “competitive and climate-neutral economy” by 2050 seeks to align with the Paris agreement’s objective to keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. While it notes several economic sectors will play a role in the climate neutral transition, it highlights the power sector’s role as a “central element for the transformation.” It suggests that the deployment of renewable energies will drive a “large-scale electrification of the energy system.” The strategy is now open for debate by EU decision-makers, stakeholders, and citizens, and it could allow the EU to adopt and submit a full strategy to the UNFCCC by 2020 and set the direction of the EU’s future climate and energy policy.

And during side events, six new entities pledged to phase out unabated coal generation and join the “Powering Past Coal Alliance,” bringing the global alliance’s membership (as of December 2018) to 30 national government, 22 sub-national governments, and 28 businesses or organizations. Among its new country members are Israel and Senegal.

1. Units 1 through 4 at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera, Israel, began operating in the early 1980s. Israel’s Ministry of Energy has mulled shutting down the units by June 2022 after it received assurance of gas supply to the Israeli economy. Source: Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel

Israel, which announced its intention to be coal-free by 2030, recently canceled the 1.2-GW Project D at the Rutenberg power plant in Ashkelon, as well as closure of four coal units at the 2.6-GW Orot Rabin power station in Hadera by 2022 (Figure 1). At the end of 2018, more than 70% of the country’s power was produced by gas and renewables plants, compared to 2015, when more than 50% came from coal. Senegal, which has made power sector development a key component of a plan to boost its economy and achieve universal access to power by 2025, depends on thermal generation for 733 MW of its 864-MW installed capacity. However, the coastal West African country said in December that it added 141 MW of new solar capacity in 2018 and plans to increase its share of renewables, currently at 23%, to 30% in 2019.

Other entities that joined the alliance include the Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the Scottish government, and Scottish Power, which shuttered its last coal plant in 2016. Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Dec. 18 pledged to bring New York, which joined the alliance earlier this year, to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, though details of the plan were not released.

And on Dec. 12, Canada, which is an alliance member, also finalized rules to phase out traditional coal power, which generated 9% of its power in 2016, as well as GHG rules for natural gas power plants. The rules require that the country’s 14 remaining coal units—five in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan, one in New Brunswick, and seven in Nova Scotia—meet performance standards of 420 mt of CO2 /GWh by installing carbon capture and storage or using carbon-neutral biomass by Dec. 31, 2029. Most coal plants are expected to shut down or convert to natural gas. The final GHG rules for natural gas plants specify new gas plants of more than 150 MW should meet a 420 mt/GWh standard, while smaller units, needed for flexibility, meet a 550 mt/GWh standard.

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor.