We have learned to expect surprises at UN climate change summits.
Durban, a year ago, there was the unexpected, but welcome, agreement to begin
negotiations on a new legally binding instrument involving all major emitters of
greenhouse gases, to be finalized by 2015 and to take effect in 2020.
Copenhagen and Cancun, in 2009 and 2010 respectively, negotiators, to the
surprise of many, abandoned “Plan A” for an international emission control
agreement in favor of “Plan B” (of the Danish prime minister) including 2020
“pledges” and an information exchange agreement between countries about
The unanticipated may also be in store this year with Qatar,
as host, probably looking for a big initiative to underline its credentials on
the world stage.
The summit, which begins on November 26, represents an
unparalleled opportunity to engage Gulf States. With their fossil fuel wealth
and growing technological and research strengths, Gulf States could transform
the international climate change strategy. Yet, as a group, they have been
So what might a “game changing” contribution from Gulf
States to the climate negotiations look like? They could lead development and
funding of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to capture and store the
greenhouse gas exhausts from the combustion of fossil fuels and prevent their
emission into the atmosphere.
CCS is important. There is no credible
scenario, without this technology, under which emissions can be sufficiently
reduced over the next 30 years to limit global average temperature rise to
within about three degrees Celsius by 2100, well above the agreed UN goal of
three degrees Celsius.
Storage of carbon dioxide in rock where oil and
water have been extracted is well established. Although plans are being
discussed in many countries, only a few, including China and Norway, have
experience with industrial level pilots for extracting carbon dioxide from power
plant exhaust gases.
The overall costs of CCS have been estimated as
comparable to the extra costs of renewable energy. However, CCS has the
advantage of not being dependent on weather, and is particularly applicable in
countries that rely on coal like China and India.
In the long-term, CCS
will only be viable in market economies if sufficient costs are imposed on
installations that emit carbon.
Estimates suggest that, once CCS
technology is mature, a carbon price of between $44 and $103 will be sufficient
to make CCS viable. The current price of carbon in the EU (the world’s major
carbon market) is much lower.
However, a tightening of the cap on
emissions from 2013 means that the EU carbon price is on an upward trajectory
and, conceivably, could reach this critical price band. Moreover, recent laws
and proposals to create carbon markets in Australia, China, Mexico, South Korea
and California indicate a global trend toward pricing carbon as a policy
Achieving CCS in the short-to-medium-term requires big capital
investments to build the commercial-scale demonstration projects that will help
to bring down costs. With uncertainty about regulations and the future price of
carbon, plus fiscal constraints on most governments and businesses, investments
have not yet been forthcoming.
However, this could soon change
First, the regulatory outlook is more certain. The Kyoto
Protocol has been extended and it is more likely that there will be stricter
carbon constraints on all major countries after 2020, reducing the regulatory
risk of investment in CCS.
Second, Gulf States have a growing incentive
to commercialize CCS, possibly using their massive Sovereign Wealth Funds.
Because CCS eliminates emissions of greenhouse gases, it potentially makes
fossil fuel markets environmentally sustainable, even in a highly carbon
constrained post-2020 world. Once commercialized, CCS technology will be
exportable, creating new jobs.
Third, in China, the world’s second
largest economy, planning is underway for a timetable for emissions reductions
under a post-2020 climate change deal. It is in fossil fuel-dependent China’s
interest to commercialize CCS and other advanced technologies. With rapid
economic growth leading to construction of many fossil-fuel power stations, that
are mostly coal-fired, large demand for CCS should soon bring down
As well as China and Gulf States, the EU, the world’s largest
carbon market, would also support progress on the CCS agenda. Driving down costs
of CCS would help those countries, like Poland and the Czech Republic, that rely
on coal and, as a result, act as a brake on Europe’s overall ambition on
tackling climate change.
Taken overall, the opportunity is crystal clear.
And, if Qatar is looking for something big to showcase its credentials on the
world stage, this may be it.
The writer a member of the house of Lords is
visiting professor at Delft University, and former director-general of the UK
Met office. Terry Townshend is director of policy at GLOBE.