UNECE Pathways to Sustainable Energy

Geneva, May 14-16th 2019. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has several working groups relating to energy, including groups on clean energy, renewables and resource management. This meeting was relatively unique in that it brought these groups together, along with representatives from Eastern Europe and former USSR states such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, to discuss recommendations for the pathways committee, moving into Phase 2 of the programme.

The group has developed three defined pillars of sustainable development which mirror the three points of the energy trilemma – energy security, environmental protection, and energy affordability. However, the UNECE committee refers to this last pillar as “quality of life”, defining this as “affordable energy that is available at all time”, therefore somewhat mixing security and affordability.

The meeting opened with a presentation of new modelling data from IIASA, focussing on several future energy scenarios for the UNECE region. The reference (business as usual) scenario predicted a 4.2°C rise in temperature by 2100. The NDC scenario, which assumed current Nationally Determined Contributions along with the continuation of the same level of commitment beyond 2050, projected a 3°C rise. The P2C scenario looked at what would be needed to limit global warming to 2.1°C. To cut to the chase, the overall conclusion was that P2C simply cannot be achieved without CCS and not just CCS on coal – CCS on gas and biomass will also be required, the latter to achieve essentially negative emissions. The report also suggested that many NDCs were ineffectual and that all NDCs would need to be rewritten and tightened to limit global temperature increases.

A “deep dive on gas” presentation was given, emphasising its importance in the region as a bridging, dispatchable source of power to keep grids secure until renewable energy becomes more available and reliable (supported by energy storage systems, which also need development). Coal was included in the future energy scenarios but was certainly not the focus of concern. This probably reflects the nature of the regions present at the workshop and their energy mix. Many of the former USSR states shared grid and energy systems in the past, but this changed as the countries became independent. Now there seem to be two distinct groups of countries – upstream and downstream. Downstream countries have hydro power as part of their mix, up to 90% in Kyrgyzstan and 18% in Azerbaijan, whereas upstream countries have little or no hydro and far higher dependency on fossil fuels and energy imports. For example, Moldova imports 80% of its energy. All the countries present voiced a serious commitment to renewable energy. One or two countries mentioned potential additional coal plants (Kyrgyzstan) but the majority were enthusiastically committed to new nuclear plants.

The major take-home messages from the meeting were:

  • “Energy efficiency is the first fuel”, and seen as the most cost-effective means of reducing emissions;
  • There is a big move towards renewables and nuclear in many countries of the UNECE region;
  • ALL NDCs must be tightened and action must start immediately to achieve the minimum of a 2°C temperature rise;
  • CCS is vital;
  • Many energy systems need complete modernisation and transformation, along with improvements in the legal and regulatory frameworks in which they work;
  • Gas is seen as a necessary transitionary fuel. And this means gas with CCS;
  • An “early warning system” is needed to monitor NDCs and action plans to provide timely feedback on when changes need to be made to ensure these policies are on track.

Personally, I was impressed at the level of commitment being shown by former USSR states towards upgrading energy systems. I was genuinely surprised at the enthusiasm for new nuclear, something that one rarely sees these days, despite nuclear being an extremely reliable and low carbon baseload option. The commitment to gas reflects the situation in the UNECE countries present at the meeting – gas is available and affordable, with new coal bed methane projects adding further potential for local supplies. This is certainly not true for many emerging and developing economies elsewhere in the world, where gas is simply not available and nuclear is not considered an option (for economic or social reasons). Coal was rarely mentioned at the meeting – it wasn’t being avoided or excluded, it was simply background noise in the discussion compared to the clear enthusiasm surrounding gas and nuclear. However, there is a deep dive study into coal being planned by the committee which may highlight the potential role of HELE (high efficiency, low emissions) coal with CCS, and the IEACCC will be happy to provide some of the information.