[Series: Road to Paris & Beyond]
After ICEF 2015 (Tokyo) and before COP21 (Paris)

Posted by Georg Erdmann October 15, 2015 Professor, Berlin University of Technology


Prof. Dr. Georg Erdmann

14 October 2015

 The second ICEF annual meeting is over. It was joined by more than 1,000 invited senior researchers, business leaders and policy makers from about 70 nations. Due to the excellence of speakers, the quality of discussions and the generous organization of the conference hosts, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the New Energy and Industrial Tech-nology Development Organization (NEDO), it was a landmark event in the international de-bate on innovative approaches towards reducing Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

In this year the discussions focused on role of both technological and institutional innovations at the coming COP21 negotiations in Paris. The fist speaker at the first plenary session, LEON CLARKE from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, presented the layout for the debate: According to the recently published 5th IPCC Assessment Report it would be necessary to reduce the global GHG emissions until 2050 by 40-70% below 2010 levels. In the second half of this century the GHG emissions should practically be zero in order to keep the global tem-perature increase within the 2° C limit.

Source: IPCC, taken from the presentation of Leon Clarke at the 2nd ICEF meeting


According to RICHARD LESTER from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the solution of the GHG problem requires speeding up environmental innovations as otherwise the desired GHG reductions will not be compatible with economic growth and prosperity. The history of GHG emissions during the last 30 years is a strong proof of this statement: Signifi-cant GHG reductions where observed in the context of the economic collapse of the former Eastern European block in the 1990s and in the aftermath of the financial crises of 2008. Out-side these periods the global emissions were on the raise. This shows the urgent need for more progress in innovations towards both adaption and mitigation. This view is underlined by PHILIPPE BENOIT from the International Energy Agency (IEA). His presentation showed that clean energy is not yet ramping up fast enough, despite some progress in recent years.

A number of concurrent sessions at the ICEF meeting presented the recent state-of-the-art for individual technologies and sectors, including development potentials, challenges and regula-tory aspects. Regarding the statements from business and industry representatives, the pro-gress is remarkable in many fields, but in many cases the additional costs of climate friendly technologies are still rather high. In addition, the full potential of singular technologies and approaches can only be exploited in a systems oriented approach which adds to the costs of these technologies. An example is photovoltaics (PV). Its electricity generation costs have dropped to the level of generation costs of fossil fuel plants, but PV cannot produce electricity during the evening electricity demand peak. Thus, without innovations in neighboring fields (batteries, flexible load, efficiency improvements …) the full scope of PV cannot be reached.

Most ICEF delegates agreed that much progress towards climate friendly innovation is need-ed, whereby innovations are defined in a rather broad sense, including management and insti-tutional innovations. LAURENCE TUBIANA, Special Representative from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and presently in charge of preparing the COP21 meeting in Paris, agreed that climate friendly innovations should play a prominent role at the COP21 conference and welcomed the ICEF initiative as a valuable input for the Paris discussions.

But the types of innovations that are needed are basic innovations, disruptive technologies and major technical break-troughs. This can be explained by taking the example of cheap coal. At present coal contributes with roughly 50 % to the GHG problem. With the ongoing substitution of coal power generation by renewable energy sources the availability of coal on the world markets will become more abundant and the coal prices are likely to stay low. This may motivate poorer countries to use this seemingly attractive energy source for their develop-ment. The coal demand stimulates coal resource owners to continue or even raise coal exploi-tation. The result is growing GHG emissions as observed in the last 15 years. For me the only reliable innovative answer to this problem is clean coal but today it is even not clear what types of technologies and basic innovations are appropriate, in particular if the technology of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) becomes a deadlock.

Steady progress of innovative improvements of given technologies as well as their accelerated dissemination are certainly required and possible as pointed out by many business leaders and industry representatives. But this will hardly be sufficient to change the GHG emission trajec-tory according to the 2° C limit. On the other hand, basic innovations and technical break-troughs usually require several decades to become mature and to create a relevant impact on the economy and the society. These types of innovations are not expected to significantly alter the greenhouse gas emission trajectory before the midst of this century.

But political leaders prefer fast results and therefore claim for “urgent actions”. Obviously this conflicts with a strategy that strengthens the role of basic innovations in solving the GHG problem. For me this conflict leads to the heart of the debate on innovations that ICEF has initiated. It is obvious that the solution cannot be found at one single conference but thanks ICEF it is now clear that time scale differences between climate requirements and innovative progresses have to be bridged. As far as this issue remains unsolved, innovation can hardly play more than a minor role in international GHG policy. Here is an important topic for dis-cussions at future ICEF meetings.

There is another reason why the role of innovative strategies may not become more substantial at the COP21 negotiations. The argument was clearly developed by several ICEF delegates in Tokyo: According to their view, a large majority of the 195 UNFCCC countries negotiating in Paris is only weakly engaged in domestic research & development (r&d) and offer no favorable conditions for significant innovative activities in favor of climate change. In order to change this, investments into capacity building and technology transfer are needed. This was well explained by speakers from the developing world such as ANWAR HOSSAIM MANJU, Minister of Environment and Forest of Bangladesh, and HÉLA CHEIKHROUHOU from the Green Climate Fund. But to my view, this view should be challenged: If developing countries would become more engaged in own r&d activities and innovative projects based on their resources and skills, their economy would become less dependent on technologies that have been developed in the industrial world and may perhaps not really fit to the economic, social and environmental conditions of developing countries. I therefore would suggest thinking seriously about innovations that are to be realized by the capacities and skills that are available in developing countries. This should become another focus at future ICEF meetings.

To sum up, the second ICEF meeting was rather inspiring and stimulating. Thanks to the ex-cellent presentations and discussions in a truly global framework, the conference contributed to the deeper understanding of the role and limitations that innovations may have in solving the greenhouse gas problem. My short conference report shows that attending the conference was quite valuable. Regarding the continuing commitment and the engagement of the two conference hosts, METI and NEDO, future annual ICEF meetings will have an outstanding place in the international conference timetable, a “must be” event.

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