Combating Climate Change

Renewable energy goals and reality

In December 2015, 195 countries made history when they agreed to the world’s most ambitious pact to limit carbon emissions. The Paris Agreement, so named because that is where the COP21 meeting of nations took place, was a landmark accord, setting the world on course to keep global surface temperatures from rising 1.5 oC above the level they were before the Industrial Revolution.

While getting the world economies to pledge to a common goal was a significant accomplishment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes that restricting global warming to below 1.5 oC is not realistic any more. The yet-to-be-released IPCC study reportedly notes that the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the current policies and investments of nations in the energy sector make it practically impossible to stick to the 1.5 oC cap as this would mean bringing the global economy to a screeching halt. That alone makes it completely unrealistic, quite aside from the lack of effort actually being made on ground by the countries that have ratified the agreement so far.

It is important to note that since the Industrial Revolution, humanity’s massive burning of fossil fuels has raised temperatures by one degree. The resultant impact on the climate is unmistakable. The past one year itself was marked by several extreme weather events around the world, from supercharged storms, hurricanes and floods to heatwaves and wildfires. At the beginning of 2017, Australia experienced one of the hottest summers on record, followed by a killer summer heatwave across southern Europe while forest fires raged across California, USA, triggered by the heat. The Atlantic hurricane season was particularly active, recording three mighty Category 5 hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria. There were significant casualties and the cost of the damage across the American continent is estimated to be in excess of $260 billion. Meanwhile, the 2017 monsoon season brought considerable rains to the Indian subcontinent and resulted in devastating floods in parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh (one of the most flood-prone countries in the world).

Role of renewables

A large part of the global pollution comes from energy production during the burning of coal, oil and gas. For decades, it has been clear that a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is critical to protecting the world from extreme weather conditions. What has changed in the past few years is the cost of renewable energy. Today, renewable energy has become cheaper than new fossil fuels and, supported with storage technologies, it can provide 24×7 power. Therefore, countries around the world need to rework their national approach to energy, whereby they can take advantage of the dramatic reduction in the cost of renewable energy and use this resource to effectively tackle pollution.

To an extent, countries that are party to the Paris Agreement are moving ahead with their commitments and plans for clean energy development, with China and India taking the lead.

China is the world’s biggest polluter. It burns more coal than the rest of the world put together. It produces more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases, nearly as much as North America and Europe put together. However, the country is now investing heavily in green technologies including electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels. It has recently announced plans to start a market to trade carbon credits for the right to emit greenhouse gases in the next couple of years. The nationwide market would initially cover China’s state-dominated power sector, which produced almost half of the country’s emissions in 2017.

According to the latest renewable energy progress report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), China alone is responsible for over 40 per cent of the global renewable capacity growth, which is largely driven by concerns about air pollution and capacity targets that were outlined in the country’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan to 2020. In fact, China has already surpassed its 2020 solar PV target, and the IEA expects it to exceed its wind target in 2019. China has also emerged as the world leader in hydropower, bioenergy for electricity and heat, as well as electric vehicles.

India’s progress report, as compared to China’s, is a bit weak, but the country is still much ahead of the others in its goal to arrest climate change. India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) targets the installation of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022 (100 GW of solar and 60 GW of wind capacity) by increasing its share of non-fossil-based energy to about 40 per cent by 2030. It has committed to reducing its emissions intensity per unit GDP by 33-35 per cent below the 2005 level by 2030 and to creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 through additional tree cover.

The country’s recent report on the climate action plan under the Paris Agreement suggests that over 80 per cent of the 51 companies in India that are responding to the Carbon Disclosure Project announced emissions reduction initiatives in 2017. It noted that 40 per cent of the companies are committed to renewable energy production and consumption targets, with three of them even committing to 100 per cent renewable power in due course. The central government has also released a report jointly with Environmental Resources Management, an environmental services consulting firm, highlighting how Indian companies are increasingly adopting internal pricing on carbon as an important tool for managing climate risks. The report notes that the number of such companies has increased from two in 2015 to eight in 2016 and 14 in 2017.

The cumulative solar installations in India surpassed 17 GW as of December 2017, while the wind power capacity stood at 33 GW, making the country the fourth largest wind power producer in the world.

Are the current efforts enough to combat climate change?

Definitely not. Around the world, solar and wind power plants are being built and investments in sustainable economies are being made. Technologically, humanity could probably already make do without fossil fuels, but practically, perhaps not. Emerging nations and economic giants like China have such high growth rates that their hunger for energy is almost insatiable. Although they like to use new, sustainable energy sources, they are also still counting on coal. In the old industrial nations, including Germany, the political will for a swift transformation is lacking. Car and energy corporations form a powerful lobby that wants to maintain the status quo. The largest consumer of power, the US, has already withdrawn from the climate treaty in one of the most negative developments on climate change during 2017.

Against this backdrop, the recently released annual audit report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has made another key revelation. The report states that the national pledges on emission reduction made by countries under the Paris Agreement will only account for one-third of what is needed to avoid the worst impact of climate change. Even full implementation of the countries’ unconditional INDCs would lead to a temperature increase of at least 3 oC by 2100.

Climate experts warn that an increase of more than 2 oC could lead to irreversible consequences, including more unpredictable superstorms and crippling heatwaves, a 10 cm rise in sea levels and probably the loss of the ice caps in Greenland and West Antarctica. The existence of many small island nations is at stake.

The way forward

Implementing the Paris Agreement is definitely a must for all signatories in order to combat climate change. The IPCC’s claims and the UNEP report clearly states that the governments need to not just urgently commit to much stronger pledges when they are revised in 2020, but also act strictly on these in order to convert them into reality.

Industries as far-ranging as cement, technology and renewables need to step up their efforts to address the climate change issue, commit to decreasing their carbon footprint, buy more renewable energy and engage in sustainable resource management.

All this will not be possible without adequate financial resources. According to estimates, developing countries will need about $100 billion in new investments per year over the next 40 years to build resilience to the effects of climate change. Emission mitigation costs are expected to be in the range of $140 billion-$175 billion per year by 2030. This enormous burden cannot be carried by national governments, many of which are already struggling to make ends meet. They will need the buy-in and participation of the private sector as well. Global financial institutions, moreover, need to pledge higher investments in clean energy and energy efficiency in the coming years.

Finally, most importantly, governments need to put in place stable, long-term regulatory regimes, including a price on carbon, which can guide all sectors and corporates through the transition to a low-carbon economy.

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