Ms. Meier is a secretary. She lives and works in a small town in Germany. She has - very likely - never heard of the Paris Agreement, nor would it interest her. Let’s discuss why Ms. Meier is nevertheless key to the success of the Paris Agreement.
One of the successes of Paris is the joint commitment to a complete change in our energy systems. The common goal to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” provides a strong political signal. It also calls for a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” This will only be possible with a swift transition towards a fully decarbonized energy system.
To achieve the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, all sectors will need to contribute. Here are a number of reasons, why this discussion focuses on the electricity sector and specifically on coal-fired power generation:
- Electricity is currently the largest emitting part of the energy sector in most countries;
- Over 40% of global electricity is produced with coal, with a total increase of coal production from 3 Gt in the 1970s to over 8 Gt in 2014 ;
- The long investment time frames in the sector call for swift action to avoid missing the GHG goals or generating stranded assets;
- Coal mining and power generation often dominates the economic structure in the region, leading to specific challenges.
Up to now, the impressive growth in renewable electricity generation has mostly addressed additional demand from growing economies. Renewable technologies instead of fossil fuel power plants formed part of new capacity built. For most countries event this is already a challenge. In 2014, only 45% of new power production capacity added globally came from renewable sources. In 2012 the World Resources Institute estimated that 1,199 new coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of 1,401,268 MW  were being proposed globally. These numbers highlight the magnitude of the challenge. Even in Germany, home to the famous ‘Energiewende,’ new coal-fired power plants are in planning .
If we are taking the Paris Agreement seriously, then we need to not only satisfy additional demand with zero-carbon technologies, but need to start changing existing generation systems. To some extent, this can happen ‘naturally’ by closing down coal fired power plants at the end of their technical lifetime and replacing the capacity with renewable technologies. But in most countries, including Germany, this will not be enough, given the number of plants that went online in the last years and will go online in the next few years, and which have a technical lifetime well beyond the 2050s.
So why should Ms. Meier care?