Things that happened in 2012, and looking ahead to 2013…

By Anders Lorenzen 

2012 was a complex year for environmentalists; dark warnings were brought by the climate, however there were also flickers of hope eg. in the form of advancements in research and green technology. Green business and NGO’s are heading into 2013 with mixed feelings.

The US


We start in the US, which really has had a rollercoaster year. One of the main topical issues has without doubt been the Keystone XL pipeline which has been a constant battle for environmentalist and campaigners. When Obama turned it down in February that was touted as an environmental victory, but the battle is not over yet and 2013 will see a renewed approval or rejection.

Concerning Obama, environmentalists have been very confused about his environmental credentials; on one hand they have been very disappointed with Obama’s lack of action on climate, however, with the election looming, they knew that a Republican presidency with Mitt Romney, a climate change denier, would have spelled disaster. Thankfully, Obama won and with the recent tragic and devastating event of Hurricane Sandy, Obama was forced to break this climate silence and has named climate change as one of his top three priorities moving forwards. Additionally, Obama has recently been singing own green praises by repeatedly highlighting the fact in his first four years in office, he has doubled renewable energy generation in the US and tightened efficiency standards for automobiles and insists that this continues to be top of his agenda. However investor confidence is set to be badly hit by the wind tax credit which Obama would like to extend, which is seeing fierce opposition in the Republican-run Congress.

In good news, however, the state of California has become the first US state to introduce a carbon market; 2013 will tell us whether other states are likely to follow California’s example.

Arctic oil


Environmental campaign group Greenpeace devoted much of 2012 to campaigning against oil giant Shell, who announced that they were going to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic this year. Due to ongoing attention from the group via public pressure and direct actions, as well as problems with inefficient old equipment and inconsistent weather patterns, Shell eventually decided to delay their plans for a year. This is merely a delay however, and we should however expect the issue to be the forefront of environmental campaigning in 2013.

The green economy


The green economy has been discussed intensely throughout 2012, especially in the wake of the ongoing recession that is still biting the western economy. Campaigners and industry have highlighted the rapid growth of the green sector, even in the wake of the ongoing energy feed in tariff issues which have seen cuts through much of Europe. There is some controversy about whether the reduction in the feed in tariff has come at the right time to be countered the reduction in production costs.

Regardless, 2013 will see continued growth as the green market becomes a more and more attractive option, placing additional pressure on politicians to focus on it. We will see increased levels of efficiency across solar panels to wind turbines, with costs set to come down significantly. In some countries we might even see grid parity* in 2013 , and exciting developments in emerging technologies like tidal and wave power, hydrogen fuel and biofuel made from algae.

We may also see a huge breakthrough in solar PV technology which will enable gadgets, like mobile phones, laptops, TV etc, to go off grid or at least limit the pressure they place on the grid, through attached transparent solar PV charging cells on display screens. We will continue to see solar PV integrated in building materials such as windows, adding the electrical capabilities and carbon neutrality of the buildings.

Deforestation


This year saw positive news from the Amazon that deforestation is at it lowest levels since the 70’s. However we have not seen the effect of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff’s Forest Code which environmental campaigners say will increase and not reduce deforestation. Globally, deforestation still looks gloomy with Indonesian and African rainforests being decimated at frightening speeds. The solution to this is more legislation and continued pressure on the big brands to commit to The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sustainable forestry initiative. On a positive note, European forestry is seeing continued growth.  

Climate change


Unfortunately there has been nothing positive to note about the beast itself – climate change. Carbon emissions are rising faster than ever and this trend looks unlikely to start declining by 2015 (the milestone date that scientists have set for a global decline). Indeed if things don’t change, we’re looking at a temperature increase of at least 4 degrees.

At the recent UNFCCC climate change summit in Doha, no significant strides forward were taken except for an extending the Kyoto Protocol until 2020. During the next eight years, only countries who are responsible for 14% of the worlds emissions (the EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and Australia) are legally required to make cuts. Countries who were signed up to the Original Kyoto Protocol (Russia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada) have all withdrawn.

Films


In late 2012, the film Chasing Ice was released depicting photographer James Balog’s documentation of the rapid melting of glaciers in the Arctic. In our recent review of the film, we speculated whether this film could give climate change the urgent public profile it needs? Judging by it’s rave reviews, talk of Oscar nominations, and the wide release it has had in the UK and US, things looks very promising.

2013 might see the arrival of another promising (fiction-lead) environmental film focusing on ‘fracking’, the controversial method of extracting Shale gas. ‘A Promised Land’ starring Matt Damon, has already seen criticism from the gas industry who have labelled it ‘left wing propaganda’.  

Coal


In Europe and US we are continuing to see a rapid decline in coal, mainly due to the replacement of gas, which in return has lowered CO2 emissions. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reported that coal usage continues to increase mainly due to industrial growth in the developing world. 1199 new coal fired plants have been proposed for 2013 and beyond, which will generate 1,401,278 MV electricity. Global coal trade is also on the up, having risen by 13.4% in 2010 alone, and coal rich Australia is looking to triple its export.

The UK


The UK has seen a mixed year, mainly dominated by uncertainty in the Conservative Liberal Democrat led coalition government about its green agenda. Several senior Tory MPs have attempted to unsettle the government on green issues, often with the backing of Chancellor George Osborne, mainly in the form of vicious attacks on renewables (especially wind power) and calls to weaken the UK’s climate targets. Osborne has openly stated that he does not think we can tackle the economy and protect the environment at the same time, and has excitedly been handing out tax breaks to fast track controversial fracking in the hope that a dash for gas will solve the UK’s energy problems. This from a government positioned themselves as ‘the greenest government ever’. Most surprising however, was the appointment of anti wind power and climate change sceptics Owen Patterson as environment minister and John Hayes as energy minister (both Tories).

On a positive note however, note the UK is world leading on offshore wind installation and technology; the first section of the London Array, the worlds largest offshore wind farm, has been constructed, connected to the grid and is already supplying 470,000 homes with electricity. The second section is pending approval for completion in coming years. And finally, Siemens Energy opened The Crystal, an exciting new sustainability center in East London, championing green technology and development in the UK and worldwide.

2013


So what’s in store for 2013? Time will tell whether Obama in his last four years will concentrate more intensely on climate change; his recent nomination of climate savvy John Kerry as the new Secretary of State is a signal that he sees the environment on a par with national security.

We might also see a movement towards a global carbon tax, with more and more countries announcing interest in one. Australian is going live with theirs next year.

Despite investment uncertainty in the area, we will witness increased development in the low carbon economy in the form of increased energy efficiency, cleantech technologies and a renewed interest amongst businesses in being seen as green. A big question is whether we will see enough activity in the deployment of renewable energy and reduction of energy usage (behaviour change) in this coming year.

We will continue to see CO2 reductions in the EU, US and Australia. Unfortunately we will also see corresponding CO2 rises in the developing world, especially China, in addition to countries like Canada, depending on whether the Keystone XL pipeline is rejected or approved. If approved, Keystone will allow Canada to up their production of the most polluting oil on the planet and expand their facilities (the reason this is not already happening is that currently they would not be able to export the oil quickly enough).

Despite the Amazonian forest success story, campaigners tell us that we have still not seen the effect of Brazil’s President Rousseff Dilma’s Forest Bill, which is believed will favour loggers. Even though we have seen rapid reforestation in Europe, globally forests are still disappearing at an accelerating rate. We urgently need to deal with deforestation in places like Indonesia and Congo; perhaps using the China example of paying farmers to plant trees on their land is the way forward. Once there is no financial incentive to cut down trees, there is no reason to do it.

Coal use will also expand into 2013, until we develop a mechanism for it not to be financially rewarding; a global carbon tax will help that aim.

As for oil, we still don’t yet know how much there is left to drill, and a lot depends on how much backing unconventional crude oils like tar sands will receive, and whether other countries apart from Canada will start extracting it. Ultimately the deciding factor will be a reduction in demand in the form of increase in hybrid or electric cars, increased fuel emission standards and moving towards creating a sustainable biofuel eg. from matter such as algae.

An exciting year lies ahead with the dark realities of climate change staring us in the face but with mixed small glimmers of hope that will keep us optimistic for 2013.

*grid parity is the point at which alternative energy reaches the same price as existing grid energy
 
Sub edited by Kirstie Wielandt

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