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Hanley Sustainability Institute

Brecha: Marie Curie fellowship with Climate Analytics a hands-on experience around the world

By Robert Brecha

Note: University of Dayton physics professor Robert Brecha is on leave serving as a European Union Marie Curie Fellow working with Climate Analytics in Germany on sustainable energy access and system transformation in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States.

The year 2015 was remarkable for the series of agreements and pronouncements related to sustainability. First came Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ released with great expectation and fanfare in June. Reaching out to an audience far beyond the Catholic Church, the Pope set a tone for thinking about sustainability in a holistic way and as a moral imperative. At then end of 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was agreed to by United Nations members. Finally, the U.N. Paris Agreement was approved by nearly all members, with the goal of limiting and avoiding damages due to climate change.

Against this background, and consistent with the work we had been doing at the University of Dayton and at the Hanley Sustainability Institute, I decided to partner with the Berlin-based think tank Climate Analytics to apply for funding from the European Union under the Marie Skłodowska Curie Program for visiting scientists.

The overarching goal of the proposal was for me to do research on implementation of energy system transformations in least developed countries and small island developing countries, and to understand better the promise of and barriers to access to sustainable energy. Two further aspects of the proposal included studying links between access to sustainable energy and fulfillment of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, and to examine assumptions made by research and policy groups in models for energy system transformation.

More concretely, we proposed I work with four countries during two years to dig more deeply into the above issues. A key component was to go beyond desktop research and to link to existing projects in various countries to participate in the stakeholder engagement processes.

It is easy to create outlines and models for how countries can move to fully renewable energy systems. Technologically, there is no doubt. But as we see even in wealthy regions like the United States or Europe, there are many roadblocks that have nothing to do with technology.

Because Climate Analytics has ongoing projects in West Africa, and the Caribbean, Europe, Australia and the Pacific Islands, it seems it will be easy to find opportunities for in-depth engagement by the time the project ends in August 2021.

A couple examples illustrate the initial work under the Marie Curie Fellowship. Working with colleagues from a variety of institutions under the CIREG (Climate Information for Integrated Renewable Electricity Generation) project, I was able to participate in energy and water system modeling stakeholder workshops in Ghana and Burkina Faso. Local experts recognize the interlinkages between the need for access to energy in countries in which most still have never had electricity available, resources such as hydropower, wind and solar energy, and competition among water for agriculture, human consumption and energy production.

By sitting together for three days of hands-on modeling work, and a day of meetings with government officials, it is possible to understand better the actual conditions on the ground in each country. Clearly, this is only one step in a much longer process, but it represents a step in the right direction of local capacity-building and ownership of energy-transformation planning.

A major focus of work in the next few months will be in assisting governments in updating their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as required by the Paris Agreement. Each country sets a self-imposed target for committing to climate change mitigation; unfortunately, the sum of all voluntary commitments is not enough to achieve the Paris Agreement target of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

In 2020, countries are supposed to update their NDCs and many requested assistance through funding that comes from sources such as the German Environmental Ministry and the Green Climate Fund.

Climate Analytics plays a role, and I will be working on stakeholder engagement for these NDC revisions as well as energy system modeling in at least three Caribbean countries. The goal is not only to see how commitments can be enhanced for small countries that have made a vanishingly small contribution to climate change. Rather, the goal is to help build local capacity using modeling and scenario tools for the energy system, and to help in designing resilient energy systems that are both low in carbon emissions and serve needs in countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

I’ve worked on scientific publications, having published two papers on the enabling power of energy consumption in achieving other SDGs related to health, education, access to clean water, and more. In addition, another paper in submission, lead-authored by a CIREG colleague, looks at trade-offs between hydropower generation and the ability to compensate generation from variable renewable energy electricity from solar photovoltaics and wind power.

In the works is another paper looking at the electricity sector in Bolivia, working with a researcher at the NGO Energética, with whom UD has a long relationship. Bolivia is an interesting case study because it currently depends economically on exports of natural gas, but a transition is needed for a world striving to be carbon-emissions-free by 2050. On the other hand, Bolivia also has one of the world’s largest resources of lithium, a crucial component of the batteries needed for storing energy and for electric mobility. How to balance competing possibilities is a challenge arising in many countries.

It will be an interesting and challenging couple of years working on these projects. I am much more accustomed to desktop, theoretical work on energy systems. Now I will have a chance to get out into the world and see how sustainable solutions are implemented. And an important side benefit of this work will be meeting people on the front lines of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

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