Misc 17/01/2021

Climate emergency: the EU has set the date

Andreu Mas-colell
3 min
Emergència climàtica:  la UE ha fixat data

Biden's election comes as very good news for the fight against the climate emergency. It opens up the possibility for the EU and the US to act in a coordinated and committed way in accordance with the Paris Agreement. If so, the rest of the world will have to follow, and we could move forward at a safe pace.

The EU has set itself a target: zero CO 2 emissions (in clean terms). But what is really important, and daring, is that a date has been set: 2050. As we cannot afford a collective failure we must each be aware that there will be agendas that matter to us but that will have to subordinate their rate of progress to the prioritized objective: that for which we have set a date. I argue this as follows.

In the long term, we must aim, for the sake of the economy, to make energy cheaper, and we must invest in the research that will make this possible. If emissions are to be contained, though, the price of hydrocarbons must be brought into line with their real cost, which must include the environmental cost. Then, as is desired, demand will be diverted to renewables, but it is unlikely - I hope I am wrong - that the supply of green energy can increase at the necessary rate to prevent the general level of energy prices from rising by 2050.

The problem of waste means that we cannot consider relying on nuclear energy forever. However, it is a non-CO 2 energy and therefore, right now, it is the only technology available to us that offers us an absolute guarantee of being able to decarbonise without inducing a brutal contraction in the energy supply. It is not certain, although it is possible, that we will be able to avoid an agonising dilemma between sticking to the date for decarbonisation (2050) and speeding up the closure of nuclear power stations.

The location of energy generation depends on many factors: on technology (solar needs sun, eolic needs wind, hydraulic needs rivers that run between mountains), on the expected energy needs in different parts of the territory, and on the cost of transporting it. The ideal location of the generating facilities would then be the one that could serve the prescribed demands at the minimum possible cost, including the environmental one. At present the cost associated with the ideal location will still be very high, because we have to use carbon technologies. The big challenge on the 2050 horizon is precisely their phase-out. The reality, however, is complicated because there are states of opinion that can hinder good intentions. I mention two, mutually incompatible: the not in my house and the adherence to a principle of self-sufficiency.

The not in my house are the neighbours who perceive a loss of quality of life if wind generators are installed in the hull that dominates their landscape. If it is a matter of occasional situations, or moderate rejection, it is not serious: the neighbours could be compensated for the installation. But if the rejection is widespread and intense, the population density is high, and there are wind turbines everywhere, then we have a problem. The absolute priority of the decarbonisation objective may push towards the legally required imposition of the installations, with compensations that fall short. The consequence can be resistance and paralysis. In this case, and in each specific situation, the alternative of transporting the energy from less populated areas or areas that are more willing to accept the generators should be explored. Transport adds a cost that may not be negligible, but may be worth paying if it reduces the risk of blockage. For example: in the Catalan case it would seem logical not to eliminate the possibility of bringing wind or photovoltaic electricity from Aragon in the first place.

However, now we come up against a second state of opinion: that which considers self-sufficiency to be a value in itself. This, I will not deny, can lead to good habits and attitudes: to cultivate one's own garden or to consume local food, and thus contribute to the vitality of the local agrarian economy. But applied to energy, I confess that it perplexes me. What is its perimeter: a house, a neighbourhood, the city, Catalonia, Europe? And how is it justified? Sometimes there is an appeal towards the security of supplies, but if we limit ourselves to Europe, or to the Iberian Peninsula, this consideration must be marginal. At the beginning of the last century, and with the help of engineer Pearson and his Barcelona Traction (the Canadian one), the industrialization of Barcelona was fed with clean energy (hydraulic) that came from the Pyrenees. Why do we now have to be reluctant to let clean energy come from Aragon?