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Headlines new energy - epaper issue 4/2017
A matter of price - Solving the carbon conundrum
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A dangerous game

Speculation – the very word suggests punters gambling on the stock exchange. In philosophy, however, speculative thinking is regarded as a means of developing theories – which must nonetheless be scientifically verifiable. Speculation is also an inseparable part of our everyday life: so many of the decisions we make are bets on our future. The longer these bets go on, the greater the uncertainty. In an ideal universe, we would be able to influence every factor affecting how things will turn out. In such a universe, the likelihood of our bets going awry would be substantially reduced.

This is precisely the problem faced by the international community as it gambles with climate change. Humanity must limit its future carbon emissions to 800 gigatonnes if it is to keep global warming below the two-degree threshold. Although some progress has been made, we are not cutting back on carbon pollution anywhere near as fast as we should be. Instead, politicians are now relying on the prospect of technologies able to scrub harmful gases from the atmosphere in order to bring about negative emission levels. The technical challenges this poses are enormous (page 28), as the measures involved would need to be rolled out on a global scale. If the venture fails, our children’s children may well find themselves living in a world we would wish on no one.

On our own doorstep, the gulf between intention and implementation is nowhere more apparent than in the European emissions trading scheme. The idea of reducing emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide is theoretically sound. However, trade in pollution rights has so far turned out to be a resounding failure. Hopes are now being pinned on a carbon tax (page 16). While this may at first sound like the ideal solution, it is plagued by problems. Our cover story explores the current debate surrounding carbon emissions in research and policy – and just how much hangs in the balance. Can our world turn its back on speculation and come together to adopt solutions which are both practically effective and rooted in science – i.e., critically verifiable?

Germany’s recent introduction of auctions for wind energy also opens the door to speculation on a grand scale. The crucial questions are: what will the future bring for technology, turbine prices and rates on the electricity market? But also, when can we expect the demise of coal – or for that matter, the introduction of effective carbon pricing? Only a small number of entities are able to influence a few of the factors involved, while the future of a great many depends on auctions. This should be quite clear to legislators, who are nevertheless gambling with the risks.

Early warnings from the industry that the special privileges granted to community energy projects could skew the allocation of contracts were largely ignored by Germany’s economics ministry. The results of the first auction round for onshore wind vindicate these concerns. The danger of a slump in expansion levels in the coming years could have been avoided from the outset, as could the increasingly public debate over possible abuse of the system (page 10).

Perversely, the reputational damage caused by the debacle – at least as far as the broader public is concerned – is sustained not by the ministry responsible, but by the industry itself. This harms acceptance for the energy transition, and consequently climate action – two issues which policymakers claim to hold dear, as we heard yet again at the recent G20 summit. Fortunate are those who hold the power to shuffle the deck, and with it the ability to shape the future – not least their own. But is this really a case of speculation – and not perhaps calculation? Critical insight is urgently needed.
Best wishes,
Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann
Editor-in-chief

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issue 4/2017 of 23.08.2017
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