The Road Beyond Paris: A Tale of Three Countries

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Once the COP21 agreements are hammered out and signed, there will surely be celebration that the words point to commitments that whole world is finally taking the problem seriously and that the pace of progress will undoubtedly be increased. It won’t be perfect, but it will certainly be the best agreement we’ve had yet.

Then there will be the morning after, when the party’s over, when we all wake up and get back to work and try to figure out, what exactly are we going to do now. Let’s take a look at what some countries that, while clearly not the largest emitters, have taken action early and effectively, and therefore could be considered role models, have done.

Germany has perhaps been the most visible leader, making huge public commitments to solar power, despite not being in a particularly sunny locale. Germany, which is already receiving 28% of its electricity from renewables (more than they get from coal), set out on their journey back in 1991, by investing in a feed-in tariff that guaranteed that those homeowners installing solar on their property would see a financial benefit. The program, which came to be known as Energiewende, or Energy Transition, has led to the effective decoupling of carbon emissions from economic growth. Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy saw their economy grow by 1.5% last year, even as energy consumption fell. This notion of decoupling, which is beginning to take hold on a global scale, is crucial to a successful climate battle.

Germany has achieved this even as they took on the additional challenge of phasing out their nuclear program, in response to concerns over safety and received close to one million refugees. Consumers will bear some of these costs, but they are committed to leaving their children a cleaner, more sustainable world.

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Another country that been a leader in this effort is Denmark. The Danes had already pledged a 100% renewable goal by 2050, a year ago. As in Germany, there is strong support for this direction both in the government and among the population. This is a country that already gets 40% of its energy from wind today, with every intention of raising that number to 50% by 2020. Or it was, until a recent election brought in a new conservative government, which aims to tighten spending in all areas including the clean economy. This was not the kind of news that those gathered in Paris in hopes of a bold agreement were hoping to hear form a country that had long been considered a role model.

Of course, the Danes are not cutting out green spending entirely, though they are reducing the budget that had allowed it to become a leader, outpacing even Germany with their renewable deployment. The R&D budget for renewable was cut to about a third of what it was last year. This will likely reduce the tide of visiting scientists who have come to Denmark to learn about the wide variety of energy sources bringing as much as $6.2 billion worth of it home with it. That’s a 15.4% increase over the previous year’s green tech exports. Next year the Energy Technology Development and Demonstration Program will only be able to support half as many projects. In return, the government will save roughly $37 million.

Still, Denmark has done much to advance the cause, and now there are others waiting in the wings, to play an inspirational role in the quest for decarbonization.

Like Uruguay, which has quietly made huge strides in their renewable deployment, apparently, while no one was watching. Right now, today, renewables provide 95% of their electricity and 55% of their total energy consumption, including transportation. Compare that with the global average of 12%. This is the result of an energy policy strategy that was enacted in 2008. Last year, it ranked #1 for the fastest growth rate of clean energy investment in Latin America. It was also named, by WWF, as the country with the largest share of its GDP invested in renewables in 2012. Energy investment today accounts for 15% of the national GDP, most of it in renewables. While Costa Rica, scores slightly higher in its use of renewables, the lion’s share of that comes from hydro, while Uruguay has a far more diverse mix. They also have been creative in combining sources. For example, the Peralta wind farm feed into hydro plants, allowing reservoirs to be maintained longer after the rainy season, making the overall system more drought-tolerant. This is significant in that the country has suffered badly from droughts in the past.      

According to Ramón Méndez, the country’s head of climate change policy (how many countries have one of those?) their success is due to three factors. These are: a stable and financially reliable democracy, substantial renewable resources including wind, sun and biomass, and strong public companies that work well with both the state as well as with private companies.

So, as we emerge from the Paris talks, there are plenty of lessons that have already been learned that those just starting down the path can draw from, and adapt to their own individual circumstances.

Image credit: derhalbling: Flickr Creative Commons