Transitioning to low-carbon energy systems

By Grace Tamble

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Hello from Day 3 of the 24th Conference of the Parties in Katowice, Poland. Upon arriving in Katowice it’s easy to get caught up in the flurry of negotiations, meetings, side events, pavilions and conversations ranging from topics as broad as carbon pricing mechanisms to forest conservation or climate-forced migration. No matter your area of interest you will surely be able to fill a full day’s schedule. I was particularly drawn to conversations related to low-emission development pathways, a critical process for achieving the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.

 IRENA’s new report shows positive socio-economic benefits of the energy transition.

IRENA’s new report shows positive socio-economic benefits of the energy transition.

I kicked off my day hearing from IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, on recent findings from a soon-to-be launched report on the socio-economic benefits of the energy transition. Based on country targets IRENA modeled the global benefits of shifting to renewable energy. Overall IRENA found that the energy transition will add 11 million additional energy sector jobs, provide 1% of global GDP growth, and increase welfare benefits (including environmental, social, health, and economic indicators) by 15% by 2050. IRENA stressed energy is not an isolated sector, rather all aspects of society can and will benefit from the transition to clean, affordable energy for all.

The theme of a just energy transition carried on throughout the day. In a later event on the energy transition, the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore shared his perspective as a small developing island. Singapore is a resource, energy, and land constrained city-state that relies heavily on trade imports as the basis of its economy. The Minister underlined the importance of remaining conscious of national circumstances when developing the Katowice rulebook for implementation of the Paris Agreement.  


 Katowice Pavilion highlights the transition from Black to Green and features a display of coal based products.

Katowice Pavilion highlights the transition from Black to Green and features a display of coal based products.

Many oil and coal dependent countries are looking to carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) as one way to cut emissions while grappling with the reality of carbon locked infrastructure. One third of CO2 emissions come from coal-fired power plants and less than half are 15 years old. While costs still remain high, CCUS is gaining increased attention as a viable pathway to low emission development, particularly as carbon pricing schemes begin to take shape around the globe. More work is still to be done, however. Unfortunately, CO2 emissions are projected to increase for the second year in a row according to the International Energy Agency. Representatives from Canada, the European Commission and Costa Rica share hope that success at COP24 will allow for better tracking and increased funding for low carbon technology.  

One of the most impactful conversations I had today came not from a high-level panelist nor country delegate but rather from a student who was born and raised in Katowice, our host for this year’s COP. I learned about the deep history and connection to the coal industry in this region. In a note of irony not lost on the student she shared her excitement about Barbórka, a regional festival celebrated each December 4th to celebrate Saint Barbara, the patron saint of coal miners. The festival is a time of family gathering where singing, dancing and sharing stories of mining folklore over hearty meals is cherished by all.  

Transitioning to low-carbon energy sectors is critical to achieving the Paris Agreement and curbing climate change, however festivals such as Barbórka serve as a keen reminder that transition isn’t easy, from both economic and social perspectives. Over the course of the day I was encouraged by efforts already underway to create sustainable, just and democratic energy solutions that not only help combat the changing climate but also offer wider social and economic benefits to communities near and far.