Vladimir Janković, PhD, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester

Renewables Change Global Politics and Economics

Energy sources are conventionally divided into capital and income types. The capital, non-renewable sources are stored in and extracted from the natural environment (coal, natural gas, oil). The income sources are reusable, providing longer-term energy security (waves, solar, wind, biomass)

Vladimir Janković, PhD, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester

The interest in renewables has historically occurred at times marked by either declining supplies or increasing prices of capital resources (during the 1930s and 1970s). The current interest in the renewables, however, is different in two major respects: first, it is concurrent with a relative abundance of cheap oil, and, second, it reflects changes in global politics and economics that are endorsed through international and national policies aimed at reducing man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and mitigating the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Fossil fuels, due to the pollution they produce and restrictions on exploitation, are being gradually replaced by renewable energy sources. In your experience, what are the trends in the world like in the field of “green” energy? How much is invested in new energy production methods at the global level?

We are in this sense witnessing a major historical conjuncture defined by a thorough re-examination of economic and energy practices behind the world’s ‘carbon democracies,’ in words of the energy analyst Timothy Mitchell. However, the simplicity of the division between the capital and income resources – and the obvious long-term preference for the latter – is complicated by the fact that the capital non-renewables currently have much higher energy efficiency and enjoy massive techno-industrial support. As this is bound to keep them as the industrial bloodstream for a conceivable time, it is crucial to understand that the support for renewables is an uphill battle against investments, affordability, profits and efficiency.

Economic and demographic reasons in particular lead to the spread of unplanned residential areas such as Kaluđerica near Belgrade, with the population of over 25 thousand

The good news is that after several years of declining global investments in renewable energies the year 2014 witnessed a 17 per cent increase in investments, all the more important as it takes place alongside sharp falls in crude oil prices. This upturn is due to a significant boost of renewable investments in China (up 40 per cent) and Japan (up 10 per cent); the expansion of renewables into new and developing markets (up 35 per cent); and record investments in solar and wind which now amount to over 90 per cent of all renewable investments. It is also notable that 2014 saw an increase in the total energy generation from renewable sources that include wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, waste-to-energy, small hydro and marine power. So perhaps the tide of history is indeed changing.

Serbia has rich hydropower potential and a large amount of waste, which recently became equivalent energy. How do you assess Serbia’s energy market potential?

Small hydro (1-20 MW) and waste-to-energy are excellent opportunities for Serbia. Small hydro units are ideal for remote and mountainous areas where they can provide local supply, reducing the need for large network systems and enabling resilience to adverse impacts on major energy suppliers (e.g. Nikola Tesla, Đerdap). This applies to pico-hydro units (ca 5KW) which can be both socially and economically beneficial through self-reliance and decentralisation of the network.

This is equally the case with waste-to-energy incinerating plants that are gaining widespread traction but require strict pollution regulation and well-organised collection and separation technologies. This, of course, is neither a simple nor a cheap process and any future developments call for a comprehensive planning and allocation of investments supported by a long term, politically independent, commitment to sustainability and economic viability of energy supply.

Climate change is leading to increasingly frequent natural disasters, which cause major damage. Which countries will suffer the greatest damage, developed or developing, and why?

Significant research has gone into investigating the relationship between extreme weather and climate change (known also as ‘attribution science,’) after the possibility of attributing specific events (hurricanes, floods or heatwaves) to the increased concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide). Recent studies (e.g. NAS 2016) provide guidance on the certainty levels in attribution studies, emphasising higher likelihoods of temperature anomalies over those of precipitation and cyclonic activity. This suggests heatwaves and droughts as most likely climatic risks for the medium-term future.

The impact will be global, but especially in places with a known history of heat- and drought-related hazards that include sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and a number of smaller areas, including the Balkans. It is important to note that heatwaves, for example, have different impacts on different regions and different communities.

In cities, the impact is compounded by the increased use of electricity for space cooling. In the countryside, the impact is set to be felt by farmers, water industry and tourist businesses. In social terms, the most affected will be underprivileged populations living in unsuitable conditions and without access to government benefits and services.

How will the population increases in cities and rising air temperature affect life in urban areas?

The spread of large and megacities (over 10 million) has been of concern to environmental policymakers for decades. The earlier concerns over pollution, economic and health risks posed by the so-called ‘urban heat island,’ – the atmospheric heat generated by the city itself – have now been put in the context of global and local warming trends.

Urban heat island is bound to remain a major problem for planners and urban population because it depends on the size of the built space which, with the increasing influx of populations, will increase in area and add to the existing stress. This will be especially felt in suburban areas of the developing countries where it is more likely than not that housing does not meet the safety benchmarks required by law (shanty-towns, favelas) and where municipal services have little or no regular presence. Further, the lack of any reliable monitoring system and reporting of environmental conditions would continue to keep affected communities under the radar of social policy.

In line with the expected increase in urbanisation, how do you see the “sustainable” cities of the future?

Sustainability implies ‘having the cake and eating it.’ Can cities have their cake and eat it? And if so, will the benefits be distributed to all of its residents? Alternatively, will the gated and wealthy (suburban) communities continue to look sustainable amongst their lush greenery, electric vehicles, eco-housing and re-cycling infrastructures while inner cities remain molten in asphalt, dirty and rife in crime? On average, perhaps, this extreme may result in an overall ‘sustainability’ but will this form of sustainability be itself sustainable? Rather than ensconcing ourselves in a fuzzy warmth of an abstract ‘sustainability,’ we should, therefore, look at the social, legal, environmental and especially economic reality of the growing urban population which contribute (or not) to their sense of wellbeing, solidarity and prosperity.

What is the cost of climate adaptation? Currently estimated annual adaptation finance needs for developing countries only (for the year 2030) starts at ca $28 billion; global public adaptation finance commitments from 2010 to 2013 has grown from $4 to $25 billion

Sustainability is not a mere eco-economic buzzword, it is first and foremost the issue of freedom, identity, justice, wellbeing and access to urban amenities. Once there is a sense and pride that we share Belgrade rather than abuse it – or Earth, for that matter – there will be a way to build a meaningful space in which sustainability will not be a goal, but a premise of social interaction and communal solidarity. Environmental values will come as a natural consequence of ‘new bright society.’

A big problem in Serbia is represented by illegal construction in cities. In your opinion, what is necessary and possible to do?

There is little that can be effectively done to prevent the problem that has multiple causes, as has been pointed out by Serbian planning scholar Ksenija Petovar. Economic and demographic reasons in particular lead to the spread of unplanned residential areas such as Kaluđerica near Belgrade, with a population of over 25 thousand.

Once the built area reaches this size, it ought to be the responsibility of the government to maintain its day-to-day functioning and simultaneously work with local residents on improving the liveability and mitigating the causes of further expansion.

Again, monitoring and law enforcement need to go hand in hand, but the longer-term solutions need to address the issue of poverty, migration, public health, and environmental risk posed by these developments.

How much will it cost to adapt to climate change?

What is the cost of climate adaptation? Currently, estimated annual adaptation finance needs for developing countries only (for the year 2030) starts at ca $28 billion; global public adaptation finance commitments from 2010 to 2013 has grown from $4 to $25 billion.  Despite this, the lower-end estimate of the gap between the adaptation needs and available public finance currently committed is around 440 per cent.

According to the World Resource Institute, world governments need to consider at least a fourfold increase in adaptation funds and rethink the current overemphasis on mitigation investments. (Keep in mind that the insured hydro-climatic losses reached ca. $25 billion last year).

It should be pointed out, however, that some if not most of the adaptation investments will have a positive return: think of the river regulation, air pollution, green areas, eco-design, residential insulation standards, transport and industrial infrastructures. Furthermore, benefits would also accrue in non-monetised domains such as social capital and quality of life. Finally, and perhaps ironically, there is a considerable impetus towards investing in sectors that stand to benefit from global warming (see Janković and Bowman, ‘After the Green Gold Rush.’)

In your presentations, you often talk about increasing “white” areas in cities, in order to increase energy efficiency. How does this mechanism work?

Belgrade is a White City that can be even whiter! This author has in August 2012 personally measured the evening temperature difference between Borča and in Belgrade city centre (Skadarlija) to be 6 degrees Celsius. On an average ‘tropical day’ in Belgrade, the city’s urban heat island is likely to be at least 5 degrees (5 degrees warmer than in the neighbouring countryside).

This means that Belgraders live their own ‘private’ climate change during the summer. This ‘extra’ heat radiates from the city’s streets, buildings, roofs – and from any dark surfaces. Cities can reduce this effect by replacing dark with white surfaces, and where better to do that than on the building roofs? The program has a physical rationale but is hampered by the issues of cost, feasibility, aesthetic considerations, property rights and so on.

How will climate change affect transport, construction, energy and other industries?

The recent Mercer report Investing in a Time of Climate Change – authored by the World Bank Group, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.K.’s Department for International Development – focuses on the sectoral impacts of climate change by 2050 and highlight intriguing opportunities and risks for business portfolios. For example, a 2-degree temperature increase would result in returns to emerging market equities, infrastructure, real estate, timber and agriculture. This temperature increase could prolong growing seasons and improve access to remote mineral-rich northern regions.

Already the melting of the North-east route from Europe to China has benefited the shipping industry through a two-fold reduction in travel time and vessels’ carbon emissions. The report shows negative returns on equities and private debt, and a strong positive signal for renewables, nuclear, health and IT. A relatively small negative impact is expected in telecom, consumer staples, industrials, and materials. The biggest losers would be utilities (-2.2%), oil (-4.0%) and coal (-4.9% over 35 years).

In Serbia, according to climate scenarios, we can expect an increase in temperature, extended dry periods and more frequent episodes of intense rainfall. Where do you see the biggest problems and where are the greatest opportunities for our country?

Like any other country, the Serbian government and Serbian people have a binding moral mandate to provide a secure and fulfilling life for present and future generations. This mandate includes environmental quality and environmental security. With or without climate change, it is the responsibility of the state and its citizen to work together to protect their human and material resources and, if possible, make them resilient to climate hazards.

In that sense, Serbia needs to build baseline resilience in all its infrastructure and assets – be they related to the regulation of waterways, rivers, soil pollution, housing standards, use of renewables, stricter environmental regulation, environmental education and so on. A major aspect of this baseline resilience will need to deliver an ‘operational weather optimisation’ system, defined as the routine use of weather and climate information in all industrial and agricultural operations, planning, and services.

My colleagues and I have recently worked to outline the specifics of this optimisation process and its implementation in the construction sector and urban planning. We predict that as a result of this implementation, industries (and the society as a whole) would be equipped with a ‘climate shield’ – an interacting system of knowledge, measures, and personnel dedicated to enhancing weather-protection and assistance.

Climate change, in Serbia as in other countries, requires a coordinated, educated and responsible task force entirely devoted to understanding the economic impact of local weather and climate and providing the government with policy advice regarding the immediate and medium-term adaptation investments. On a routine basis, Climate Shield Serbia would be responsible for the economy-oriented weather and climate predictions, developed through a dialogue between the scientific and user communities, and designed to be routinely implemented in ways that would protect human and material assets of the country.