|New Earthrise image released by NASA on the 23rd of December. Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory.|
By Anders Lorenzen
It is that time again when we look and analyse some of the highlights of the year which is coming to a close. And it is easy to conclude that 2015 has been quite a significant year.
Around this time last year, we sat down to look at 2014’s highlights and predict events for 2015. We expected COP21 to dominate proceedings and prove to be one of the main events of the year, and that prediction proved correct. And as we moved through 2015, the anticipation and anxiety about Paris intensified.
A couple of weeks before the summit was about to start, that anxiety peaked as Paris was hit by a tragic terrorist attack. Many questioned whether the summit could go ahead. But in a move of defiance, the French authorities decided that it should, although it was a somewhat scaled- back version. And civil society paid the price. The French government banned any kind of public protest, so the large climate march planned on the eve of the summit was cancelled. Nevertheless towards the end of COP21, civil society groups scored a small victory as they managed to get another climate march approved by the authorities, on the day after the summit was scheduled to finish.
In true UN climate conference negotiation tradition, COP21 did not finish on time this time either. And as the summit drew to its close, there was increased nervousness that the deal signed would be weak. But nevertheless, on Saturday the 12th of December, the COP President Laurent Fabius declared in a jubilant mood that a deal had been signed. This was a moment of significant history, and we declare it the most significant development of the year. For the first time ever, we have reached a global climate deal, which every single of the 195 UN countries has signed up to. Now what will happen next is the big question, which we will follow and debate closely through 2016.
A host of new weather records
2015 was not immune to extreme weather events or to new weather records being set. And as I write, it is being predicted that this Christmas in some parts of the northern hemisphere could be the warmest recorded for decades. In many parts of the UK, in the week running up to Christmas, temperatures of 17 degrees C were recorded, which actually beat the temperature highs on some summer days. It is likely that December could prove to be the warmest December month ever experienced in the UK since records began. UK’s Met Office predicts that 2016 could be the warmest year ever recorded globally. Of course, it is also widely anticipated that 2015 will be the warmest year ever recorded, beating the 2014 record. Earlier this year, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that July 2015 was the warmest month that had ever been recorded.
In June, a devastating heat wave in Pakistan killed more than a 1,000 people. In May one of the most climate skeptic states in the US was hit by unprecedented flooding. In September the tropical storm Etau brought havoc to Japan, causing heavy floods which uprooted trees and tore houses from their foundations. These are just a few examples of extreme weather events happening throughout 2015. .
Probably one of the longest running environmental sagas, the Keystone XL pipeline, also came to an end in 2015, at least for now. After having delayed the controversial project several times, which would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands and down to refineries in Texas, President Obama finally rejected it outright. This marked a huge victory for the environmental movement in North America, which had made this the centerpiece of their campaign. While it is still disputed how bad the climate impact of the project might be, it has proved a huge symbolic victory. Green groups and environmentalists have lavished praise on Obama for making the decision. However, it is very likely, that if a Republican candidate wins the US Presidential Election next year, that this decision will be overturned.
Arctic oil drilling
Another long-running environmental battle also saw environmentalists claiming victory, the battle of drilling for oil in the Arctic. The oil major Shell announced that they had left their Arctic oil field in the Chukchi Sea, off the Alaskan coast, after they struggled to find sufficient quantities of oil. The campaign against Arctic drilling was started by the environmental group Greenpeace a few years ago. It intensified when other environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, joined the opposition as well as a host of celebrities and politicians. Crucially, a shareholder revolt had started to emerge inside Shell too, due to their Arctic drilling plans. On top of that the price of continued to be low, which makes drilling for oil in the Arctic a bad financial decision.
From a green-minded point of view, 2015 saw several interesting political events. The most significant move was in Canada, where Justin Trudeau, was elected as the new Prime Minister. This has already had positive implications, as he appears to take the threat of climate change a lot more seriously than his predecessor Stephen Harper. And Trudeau has appointed a climate change minister, something that the Harper administration did not do.
In Australia, there was another drama in the Liberal Party as Malcolm Turnbull, who ousted Tony Abbott as leader of the party, became Australia’s new prime minister. While this is not set to change things dramatically in the country, Turnbull is a lot more friendly towards renewables and favours a price/tax on carbon.
In the UK, the Conservative Party won another term in office, and this time, they formed a majority government. They have seen this as their opportunity to unveil a series of attacks on green policies. They have cancelled subsidies for onshore wind, drastically cut solar subsidies, removed incentives for electric car ownership. And they have made many other policy changes, which green groups and environmentalists have been less than pleased about. More recently they have also allowed fracking in national parks.
In Denmark, the Right wing party Venstre formed a minority government, which weakened Denmark’s green goals. They also removed the incentives for electric car ownership. This received criticisms from entrepreneur and founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, who said that Denmark was in danger of losing their green image.
In Poland, an extreme-right wing climate-denying party, Law and Justice (PiS), won the election and has formed the next government. It is believed they will favour even worse green policies in a country which is already seen to have some of Europe’s worst green standards and laws.
In Spain’s recent election, the ruling Popular Party won most votes, but they are likely to form a coalition with the Socialist party who came second. The new anti-austerity party, Podemos, came third and is set to lead the official opposition. The big question for Spain’s environmentalists is whether the controversial solar tax will be reversed. The tax has badly damaged Spain’s solar industry.
It has been another successful year for clean energy. Clean energy has broken record after record, as the cost of solar and wind generation has dropped. In many places, the economics of clean energy has been a game changer. And the International Energy Agency (IEA) have said that the day when wind and solar can stand without subsidy is getting closer while the gap between renewables and fossil fuels and nuclear is narrowing. One of the reasons for the cost coming down is investments on a larger scale. Many large corporations have decided to invest heavily in renewables, including the world’s largest social media site, Facebook, where their new Forth Worth data center will be 100% powered by renewables.
The clean energy analyst company, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), has pointed to the fact that renewables have already overtaken fossil fuels in terms of investment and deployment. While the overall installed capacity of clean energy is still very small compared to fossil fuels, since 2013 we have been adding more renewable capacity than fossil fuels, and BNEF predicts that this trend is set to continue.
It was also a good year for new technologies. An innovative tidal energy lagoon project in Wales was given a green light by the UK government. When completed and in operation, it is set to deliver clean energy for 155,000 UK households, and will be in operation for 120 years.
The US saw the birth of the first offshore wind power project. A pilot project on Block Island in Rhode Island will have an installed capacity of 30 megawatts (MW), and could kick-start the offshore wind industry in the US.
In 2014, renewables had a record year, We believe that will also be the case when the numbers are out for 2015, and we will report on that as soon as we have that info.
In 2015, it appeared the world started to turn against dirty energy. In the US, after Obama unveiled the first-ever regulations on coal-fired power stations in his Clean Power Plan, the coal industry took a hit. But unfortunately, it is doing well in other places such as India, who plans to treble their coal usage, And China which is installing a lot of clean energy capacity is also still building coal power plants and will continue to do so for a while though their power plants are getting cleaner.
We are also starting to see signals that point us to an end to the tar sands industry, or, at least, it looks likely that the industry won’t expand. This is partly due to the rejection of Keystone XL. But it is also because local elections saw a new Premier in the tar sands state, Alberta, Rachel Anne Notley, who is keen to see an end to the tar sands industry. And Canada’s new climate change minister is likely to promote renewables and to be a strong advocate in switching away from the dirty energy source.
The low oil price meant that many fossil fuel energy projects couldn’t take off as they weren’t economically viable. This is in part starting to hurt fracking, which still features quite well in the US and Australia. But it might be harder to support new industries in places like the UK though the government is very keen.. And in Poland, which is estimated to have the greatest shale gas potential in Europe, the industry is failing. Despite the drilling of 68 commercial wells, not one of them has managed to get the gas flowing commercially. This has meant that all oil majors have left the country, more or less a death blow to the industry.
Looking ahead to 2016
We believe the outlook for 2016 is extremely positive, due in large part to the COP21 Paris Agreement. A clear signal has been given to investors that fossil fuels belong to the past and the future is renewables. With recent record-breaking years for renewables, 2016 can only be even better. And let us not forget that with more investments, prices will continue to come down.
That is not to say there won’t be any challenges, there will be. There are still many governments which are not following the correct route, and there are still many fossil fuel project pencilled to go ahead. This will be a disaster for the climate, and we can’t afford to go down this route if we are to adhere to the two-degree limit, which all 195 UN countries have now agreed to.
But we believe the climate change agenda will be even more visible in 2016 that it has been for a long time, as even more stakeholders will take a keen interest in the issue. We will, of course, continue to bring you what we think are the most interesting and fascinating stories. We hope you will join us on a journey we believe will be very interesting indeed.