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News 06 December 2021 - EERA December Editorial

Food for thought - After the political frenzy, let us listen to what science tells us

Dear readers,

The last two months have been very active in our field.  Since the last time we wrote these lines, several landmark events have taken place. Certainly the most important one for climate and energy, the UN Climate Conference of the Parties 26 (COP 26) ended just three weeks ago.  At European level, the 15th Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan) Conference also occurred in the last days of November. It happened only a month after the well attended EERA high-level Policy Conference “Driving the Clean Energy Transition” organised in Brussels to launch the EERA White Paper on the Clean Energy Transition.

Let us recap some of the main takeaways that this busy period has left us with, also on the brink of a new year.

COP26 managed (at least…) to keep Paris goals alive; however, the world remains far off track the 1.5C scenario, and the submitted country commitments (the so-called “Nationally Determined Contributions”) are not in line with achieving it. Therefore, in our perspective, if COP26  showed timid improvements, it globally did not deliver what was so vividly expected from citizens across the globe: To unite nations efforts to deliver a credible joint plan able to limit global warming to 1.5C , and preserve humanity from the most disastrous effects of climate change.

Looking at it in detail, according to an analysis laid down by Carbon Brief, current policies (i.e., “business as usual scenario”) will lead to a best estimate warming of around 2.6C to 2.7C by 2100. If countries were to fully meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for the near-term target of 2030, projected warming by 2100 falls to about 2.4C. Finally, if all countries were, in addition, to fully meet their long-term (2050) net-zero pledges, global warming would be limited to about 1.8C by 2100. Analyses show that whatever the scenario, it is now highly probable that the 1.5C target will be overshot by mid-century.

If long term pledges point to a more acceptable scenario of global warming below 2.0C by the end of the century, one must, however, seriously challenge the credibility of such pledges. Indeed, suppose near term pledges (2030), many of which are still “conditional”, are reasonably substantiated with concrete policy and technology deployment plans. Even in that case, they starkly fall short of being compatible with keeping warming close to reasonable limits by the end of the century. On the contrary, long term pledges represent much higher climate mitigation ambitions. Still, they are generally associated with a high credibility gap since they are mostly not codified into law nor substantiated by a concrete mitigation action plan. They, therefore, represent promises of long-term action rather than any binding or reliable commitments. Furthermore, political leaders announcing today net-zero pledges will, in most cases, not be in office anymore by mid-century. Therefore, they will hardly bear any political responsibility if they fail to implement them.

Europe stands among those that have formalised its pledges into law. In fact, a few weeks after the conclusion of COP26, the 15th Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan) Conference took place. The SET Plan is the EC instrument to foster higher EU collaboration and boost R&I in the range of low carbon technologies needed to achieve the Clean Energy Transition. During this conference, the pivotal role of the SET Plan to deliver on the Green Deal and Fit for 55 was re-stated. As such, EERA welcomes the strong call by the Commission to “revamp” it in order to reinforce its role as a key stepping-stone to boost the transition and deliver against the long-term objectives of the EU to reach climate neutrality by mid-century. The European Energy Research Alliance intends to reiterate its central role in the revamped SET Plan, and it has already set in motion a series of strategic initiatives.

From an EERA perspective, and as outlined in the White Paper on the Clean Energy Transition, research and innovation must take a central role in the transition to clean energy. We know that about half of the CO2 emissions reductions needed to reach neutrality by 2050 will come from technologies not yet on the market. Therefore, the efforts must be directed to accelerate R&I across the entire TRL range, from developing breakthrough technologies of the future to bringing existing precompetitive ones to market and supporting the massive deployment of these technologies in the field.

Moreover, the acceleration in the development and deployment of clean energy solutions will only be possible through effective collaboration across the board, and remarkably, international cooperation in R&I. The need for an increased focus on clean energy research and innovation in the years and decades to come, as well as enhanced cooperation, has been highlighted by the IEA, and also strongly echoed by the European institutions.

Finally, in line with the recommendations of its White Paper, EERA highly welcomes the European Commission call for a more people-centric approach to the Clean Energy Transition, also recognising the need to break existing governance and policy silos and promote an interdisciplinary, holistic, and cross-sectoral perspective.

In a context where hopes may start to dilute, we need to remain vigilant and step up our work and ambitions. The last days of the year leave us with food for thought on what is required to safeguard the continuity of our civilisation as we know it. For some of us, this may still seem an overstatement; but notwithstanding the political gesticulations, this is what science tells us. The risks of doubting it exceed by far those entailed by investing now into a global fair and sustainable future.