By Padma Bhushan, Shree Shyam Saran, President, India International Center, Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India
Many recent research warns of the possibility of ecological destruction on account of environmental damage. We are already close to the point when ecological destruction induced by climate change will make the earth’s ecosystem catastrophic and degraded. To tackle this rising rate of destruction, the world should make an accelerated transition from economic activities on fossil fuels to those based on renewable sources of energy such as solar energy and nuclear energy. The accumulated greenhouse gases due to the burning of fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and modern economic activities since the dawn of the industrial age majorly attribute to global climate change.
Energy transition and energy security are at the heart of looming the threat of global climate change. Following the logic of historic responsibility, established economies that contribute in bulk to the environment-threatening accumulations in the garth of the earth’s ecosystem should adopt sustainable habits that lead to the ultimate transformation of energies. Preliminary economies and industrial communities should build a robust pattern of transitioning economic activities based on renewable sources of energy and cleaner nuclear energy. However, this transition phase surfaces vulnerability since two different energy systems co-exist and interact which paves the way to unprecedented disruptions affecting the energy security and delivery of energy services to consumers. Similarly, as we experienced in the Ukraine war, the natural gas supplies were disrupted from Russia to Europe and created a spurt in coal, oil, and gas prices thereby reviving the demand for the same in countries such as India, Japan, Germany, and China making them move away from relying on coal-based power.
As rightly pointed out by the World Economic Forum’s report on the energy transition index – A series of systematic shocks over the past three years and their implications on the energy system highlight the challenges in pursuing long-term targets while responding to short-term emergencies. This indicates the need for well-functioning and efficient use of fossil fuels for the energy transition. It should be recognized that the rapid renewable energy is leading to higher demand for certain critical minerals - Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel, and Copper. The dependency on oil and gas is well replaced on critical minerals. Although this transition will not proceed at a pace necessitated by the climate change imperative if it leads to unaffordable energy, diminished access, and rising inequalities.
Renewable energy capacity has been steadily increasing over the past decade. International Energy Agency observed that renewable energy capacity in terms of solar and wind generation set a record of 290 MW in 2021. However, this is well below the increased capacity required to be added annually, 960 MW from now to 203, if there is a likelihood of meeting the target of net zero or carbon neutrality by 2050. There is no realistic possibility of being able to ramp up renewable energy capacity by this order of magnitude during the next decade. IEA emphasis improving energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It points out the potential of improving energy efficiency to drive a 40% reduction in emissions to achieve net zero by mid-century.
The G-20 declaration has a considerable portion devoted to energy security, in particular, to –global clean energy transitions, which must be sustainable, just, affordable and inclusive. -A Ball Energy Transition Road Map for guiding energy transitions leading up to 2030 was also endorsed in the Declaration. This Road Map is Focused on 3 priorities: securing energy accessibility, scaling up smart and clean energy technologies, and advancing clean energy financing. In this context, it calls for the adoption of "low emission pathways" which implies that fossil fuel use will continue though there could be a role in the energy transition for relatively cleaner fuels such as natural gas. COP 27 has adopted a Sharm el-Sheik Implementation Plan which reiterates the resolve to pursue further efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. The Plan has a section each on Energy and Mitigation which may be worth noting. These recognize, for example, that "limiting global warming requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43% by 2030 relative to the 2019 level. This is in line with the latest 6" Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, the implementation Plan has omitted reference to another key finding by the IPCC, that in order to limit average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, there is a need to peak global emissions by 2025-only 3 years from now on the way to a 43% reduction by 2030. The implication of this, according to the Plan, is the "urgency to rapidly transform energy systems to be more secure, reliable and resilient, including by accelerating clean and just transitions to renewable energy. Just energy transition partnerships and other cooperative action.
Based on the trends and projections, the lEA expects the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix to fall from.80% currently to just above 60% by 2050. Global carbon emissions fell more slowly from a high point of 37 billion tonnes per year to 32 billion tonnes by 2050. It should be noted that this level of carbon emissions corresponds to a rise of 2.5 degrees C in average global temperature by 2100, far above what is required by the more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees put forward in the Implementation Plan. Unless there is a dramatic departure from current trends, the probability is that we shall be unable to avoid the even more catastrophic impacts of climate change than what we are experiencing currently. Even if the more ambitious goals are accepted how is this transition is to be financed? For limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, GHG emissions must be reduced to a total of 23 gigatonnes by 2030 and zero by 2050, the year of net zero. For the 2030 target, it is estimated that each year from now to 2030, investment in clean energy must be maintained at $1.3-1.4 trillion annually. Thereafter to 2050, it would rise to $4 trillion annually. If we take the figures of investment in renewable energy by the top 20 countries over the years 2010-2019, we get an annual average of US$200 billion. Is it realistic to expect a 6 or 7-fold increase in this over the next decade? Given the more challenging economic situation faced by both developed as well as developing countries, this appears unlikely.
Firstly, climate change cannot be dealt with in isolation as a singular domain. It is part and parcel of the wider ecological challenge that confronts our planet. The continuing loss of the earth's rich biodiversity through the destruction of pristine forests, the pollution of our rivers and water sources by runoff from heavy use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides, the dumping of plastics and other hazardous materials into our oceans and the mountains of waste and garbage which our production and consumption patterns generate, all these interact with climate and intensify its adverse consequences. For developing countries like India, climate change is not merely an issue of reducing carbon emissions. The development process is integrally interlinked with the drivers of climate change. Thus, it is by adopting an alternative, ecologically sustainable strategy of economic development, one which is resource frugal, which does not treat Nature as a dark force to be harnessed but as a source of nurture and well-being and one which is always sensitive to respect for inter-generational equity, that the challenge of climate change can be addressed. It is estimated that at today's consumption and production patterns, the world needs one and a half if not two planets to survive. We take pride in our cultural attributes.
One of the key initiatives announced by the Prime Minister at COP 26 in Glasgow was LiFE, or Lifestyle for the Environment, which seeks to launch a worldwide movement for "mindful and deliberate utilization instead of mindless and destructive consumption." These include ideas of a circular economy, recycling, and zero waste but these are not reflected in economic strategies which continue to aspire to the lifestyles of western countries. The Indian sub-continent is a single ecological unit and the impacts of ecological degradation and climate change do not respect national or regional boundaries. The melting of glaciers or the ravaging of the river systems unless all countries collaborate.
It is a paradox of our times that precisely when the salience of cross-national, cross-domain challenges has increased, demanding collaborative responses, we are witnessing the upsurge of narrow nationalism and lack of international solidarity. Despite the recent Covid-19 pandemic being a global challenge, respecting no national boundaries, how "vaccine nationalism" prevailed instead. That experience does not work well for the prospects of meeting the even bigger challenge of climate change through an accelerated but carefully choreographed energy transition leading to a fossil-free world. There is an urge of political leaders and decision-makers to locate India's interests in the frame of a larger humanity.