Cautious optimism for COP21 but Hutton warns on energy sovereignty

A high profile panel discussion at Thursday’s Economist Energy Summit heard plenty of positive statements about the prospects for success of the forthcoming COP21 conference in Paris, but former UK energy minster Lord John Hutton did have a proviso.

At the same event Norwegian minister Vidar Helgesesn professed the view that “natural gas is the best friend of renewables.”

Hutton, chair of the Nuclear Industry Association, was very forceful in his belief that the technologies used to decarbonize should be left to each individual state and pointed out the lack of mention of nuclear in preparatory texts for the end-of-month conference.
Lord Hutton, Chair Nuclear Industry Association
In response to a question on whether renewables should continue to be subsidised he digressed, saying, “I don’t have a problem with renewables but it would be a huge step backwards if the rhetoric is allowed to take hold that nuclear power is out.

“We must be free to use the technology that is most appropriate to us in the UK and indeed in France. People don’t want to say the nuclear word which is pathetic. Nuclear is vital for baseload. We’ve got to have reliable sources of low carbon electricity – nuclear is going to do that.”

Hutton was keen to impress this view throughout the discussion, later saying, “Nation states retain the sovereign right to retain the technology they think appropriate. I don’t want anything to come out of COP21 that would stop a country like ourselves pursuing nuclear projects.”

Besides that contention, the NIA chief shared a cautious optimism with other panellists on the prospects for success at the hugely-anticipated climate conference, so long as the participants remembered the harsh lessons of previous summits.

He cited the Copenhagen experience in particular as evidence that a more realistic approach is needed in terms of what can be achieved.

“Previous summits failed because of a failure to understand the hard politics involved. As the case for Copenhagen if no one signs up it, it doesn’t matter how brilliant a document it is.

“In order to make progress we have to be more realistic about the outcomes, so some of the more sensitive issues will be postponed until the future.”

“I’m in favour of incremental steps succeeding rather than no progress at all. There will be a deal but COP21 will not be enough on its own to restrict the change in global temperature to below 2 degrees that people want. It’s the first in a series of negotiations that need to be had

“I am optimistic as it’s a bottom up process and if we stick to that principle we are on a winner in leaving decisions at the most appropriate level, that being each individual country.”

Fellow panellist Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for EU affairs did not quite share in the positivity to the same extent and criticised those behind the Paris summit as putting too little effort into the text, with ‘too much procedural discussion and less on the substantive issues.’
Vidar Helgesen
However he did see some reasons for cheer in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) being pledged. These are the contributions countries have agreed to publicly outline in terms of post-2020 climate actions they intend to take under a new international agreement.

“The INDC report reads better than we’ve seen in many years. There is opportunity between now and Paris if governments take the report seriously to make progress. I am also more optimistic on national political dynamics at play including the movement by civil society because of pollution and so on. There are promising market developments and it might be more promising than we give credit. The International Energy Agency has, for example, consistently underestimated the progress of renewables.”

The Norwegian government chief of staff also asserted his belief in an effective price on carbon, which he believed would solve many problems, before stating a preference for gas.

“The IPCC highlights the role of natural gas as the cleanest of the fossil fuels for power.à‚ Natural gas is the best friend of renewables.”

Antoine Rostand, Senior Adviser at Schlumberger concurred with Helgesen’s remarks on the societal push towards decarbonisation.

“The commitment to monitor emissions is important and it will have an effect. There is huge momentum ” civil society is pushing, business is pushing. I think of Caerus, the Greek god of opportunity, and this is the opportunity for change on climate.”

Rostand also expressed confidence that emerging technologies, such as the potential to use the gas grid for hydrogen storage could accelerate a better outcome, and help towards a resolution associated with the intermittency of renewables.

All three were clear on the need for innovative thinking in terms of finance and taxing in order to maintain the momentum required to achieve goals and Rostand advocated a scenario where all technologies must play their part in the overall ambition, in what he termed should be ‘Darwinism in reducing carbon.’

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