Wishful Thinking: Clean Energy Revolution Trumps Climate Skepticism at Global Climate Talks

Marrakech, Morocco – If Donald Trump’s election killed any chance of fighting global climate change, nobody told the advocates, officials and bankers gathered here to put last year’s Paris climate agreement into effect.

To put it another way: the falling price of solar energy and other renewables may trump the rise of climate-change skeptics in the U.S. government.

The unsubsidized price of a megawatt-hour of solar electricity has fallen below $30 in some deals, beating coal-power by as much as 50 percent. That’s a 20-fold price drop from about $600 per megawatt-hour in 2009.

Combine that with a world awash in low-cost capital and the momentum behind renewable energy projects in the next 10 years may be too powerful for even President-elect Trump to derail. At least that's the hope of climate-action proponents who are not willing to give up hard-won progress without a fight.

Hundreds of business leaders, including executives of DuPont, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, General Mills, Kellogg Company and Unilever, called on the president-elect to stay the course on low-carbon energy investments.

“Implementing the Paris Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy and prosperity to all,” the business leaders wrote.

Risk reduction

Even the commitments made in Paris last year are not enough to avert the more than 2-degree increase in average temperatures that is considered the break-point for catastrophic climate change. A new report this week identified a gap of 12-14 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions that must be eliminated by 2030.

As an example of the scale of ambition needed to close that gap, the Paris-based Terrawatt Initiative announced a goal of 2.5 terrawatts of installed solar capacity by 2025, or 10 times the current capacity. That will require the installation of about 700 megawatts of solar every day.

Who will finance it? It won’t be governments, who have struggled to raise $10 billion of a promised $100 billion for the UN-backed Green Climate Fund. The U.S. election has thrown into doubt the future of that fund, which has committed more than $1 billion to 19 projects.

Instead, long-term, low-cost capital will have to come from the $12 trillion annual bond market, where buyers such as pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds are hungry for yield in a low-return market. Already this year, green bonds have raised more than $66 billion, up from $42 billion in 2015.

“We have the capital – we have more capital on the planet than ever before, and a huge chunk of it is invested in negative-interest rate bonds,” said Sean Kidney, CEO of the London-based Climate Bonds Initiative. Institutional investors, he said, see climate change as the biggest long-term threat to their portfolios.

“What we need to do is insure that investments that are green can slot easily into their (risk) rating requirements,” he said. “If we can do that, I tell you they will buy green.”

The World Bank and other development-finance institutions are experimenting with such risk-reduction mechanisms. Loss-guarantees effectively ensure that emerging-market governments and utilities will make good on renewable energy power-purchase agreements. The mechanisms can make such bonds institutional grade, said Michael Eckhart, Citigroup’s global head of environmental finance and sustainability.

“This would unlock the global market instantly,” said Eckhart, who proposed that the Green Climate Fund change its mission and serve as that kind of guarantor. “$10 billion is a drop in the bucket for loans, but it is the perfect amount to unlock the Terawatt challenge.”

Geopolitical competition

The European Investment Bank plans to invest $100 billion in climate action between now and 2020, said Jonathan Taylor, a bank vice president. Recent investments include five solar projects in Jordan, a desalinization plant in Gaza and energy resilience projects in the Maldives and Cook Islands.

“We try to take away risks that keep the private sector away,” Taylor said at the Global Climate Finance Action conference organized by Beya Capital, a Casablanca-based investment and advisory firm.

If the lure of renewable riches isn't enough to turn around the new administration's thinking, geopolitical rivalry might be. China, already a huge exporter of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, is eager to partner with African and other nations on large infrastructure projects.

China is expected next year to force industries to pay a fee for their greenhouse gas emissions, effectively putting a price on carbon in the world's second-largest economy.

A senior Chinese climate talks negotiator, Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, told Reuters, “Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground.”

Before the election, the U.S. delegation here had planned a week of celebrations of climate progress and announcements, including an ambitious plan to get to near-zero carbon economy by 2050. Dazed and demoralized, they gamely carried on.

“The economic and market fundamentals in the U.S. market is past the tipping point and cost curves continue to fall,” John Morton, the White House National Security Council’s director of climate change said at the finance conference. “There is an economic reality embedded into our economy and the world economy. That's not going to change.”

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