Opinion

Weak action to combat climate change

Aarti Khosla/Aniruddha Bhattarcharjee | Updated on August 12, 2021

Countries need to take immediate measures, besides proceeding ahead on reforestation, bio-energy and carbon capture

The first report of the IPCC (Working Group I (AR6 WGI) is the biggest update on our knowledge of climate science. It states with certainty that modern-day climate change is a direct result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

The science is now clear that unless emissions are curbed immediately, the global surface air temperature (GSAT) will overshoot the 1.5 deg C limit by 2030 — 10 years sooner than previously estimated.

The rising temperatures will redouble the already worsening frequency of heatwaves, droughts, flash floods, torrential rainfall, wildfires and cyclones — not to mention a dangerous rise in sea levels. And the threat is no longer relegated to events that happen in the poorest of countries.

The residents of southern Germany never expected to have their towns destroyed by raging floodwaters, nor did western Canada expect a record-breaking heatwave to burn an entire town to the ground.

The climate emergency of the future is happening right now.

Yet, it is still possible to stay below the 1.5 deg C limit, but it will take immense effort from every government — regardless of developed or developing economies — to implement sweeping changes to the way we produce and consume energy.

Implicit in the report’s findings is that the world must effect absolute cuts in emissions, instead of mitigating them through reforestation (which will not be enough), or bio-energy and carbon capture and storage (the latter is new and untested in efficiency and carbon footprint). This is particularly worrying since by 2050, the oceans will have become saturated with dissolved CO2. Any excess CO2 will thus leak into the atmosphere and exacerbate the greenhouse effect.

And methane is particularly harmful since it is around 84X more potent in trapping heat, even though it degrades after about 10 years. Nearly 9.3 billion tonnes (CO2 equivalent) of the gas are released every year from active and abandoned oil and gas mines, land use change for agriculture, dairy operations and landfills.

Policy action is lacking

A lot of analysis is now available to demonstrate the scale of ambition of countries across the world. Last month, the European Union released its plan to reduce emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 by 2030 and didn't shy away from committing to bring down emissions to zero by 2050.

Yet, instead of specifying a date for coal phaseout, the EU will rely on potential increases in carbon taxes to lower its use.

Meanwhile, China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, has set a target to bring its carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050, and achieve net zero emissions of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. It also plans to cut the CO2 intensity of its GDP by 65 per cent by 2030. Yet it commissioned 38.4 GW of new coal plants in 2020, that comprise 76 per cent of the global new coal capacity (50.3 GW), and the country’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021–2025) suggests that its coal power generation will continue to grow through 2025.

The US, too, unveiled its ambitious American Jobs Plan in April this year to decarbonise its grid, give a huge boost to clean energy and transform mobility by switching to electric vehicles.

But as it goes to the Senate, the plan omits clean electricity standards, the part that would require the American grid to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Despite all rhetoric, the US has once again left out the most sizeable and ambitious part of its climate plan.

India’s opportunity

From an Indian perspective, the report projects an intensification of the water cycle, which will adversely affect rainfall patterns by increasing monsoon precipitation. This will be a blow to the already strained disaster management teams that are having to combat worsening extreme weather events every passing year.

In 2020, a single cyclone event in India caused $13 billion in damage making it the costliest weather event in the world.

At the same time, coal’s demand in the country seems to be waning despite the government’s efforts at auctioning coal mines and proposing to write off loans for the 40 GW worth of stranded assets. In contrast, the national renewable energy target of 450 GW by 2030 seems ambitious but could be achieved on the back of solar and wind tariffs, which are expected to fall to less than ₹2/kWh by 2030. Thus, even though the Centre spent ₹70,000 crore ( around $10 billion) in subsidising fossil fuels in 2020, and 7X more on the former in 2019 than subsidies for wind and solar, market conditions and investor sentiment clearly favour clean energy.

Electric mobility is also gaining popularity — with the two-wheeler base in particular — as customers come to appreciate their lower running and maintenance costs. Massive moves forward, such as the Indian Railways targeting 100 per cent electrification by 2023 (primarily through 20 GW of solar power) and a number of States targeting the sales of at least 500,000 EVs by 2025 also show that the technology’s benefits to the economy have been recognised. EVs still account for only around 1 per cent of all auto sales in the country, but the scenario could be very different by 2030 with enhanced government support.

There is hope, therefore, that with swift action and political will, the global emissions trajectory can be reversed. The alternatives to coal and oil and gas are cheaper and easier to bring online. At the moment, though, it is quite clear that not enough is being done to combat climate change either in the rich or in the emerging and developing countries.

Khosla is Director, and Bhattacharjee is Lead Researcher Energy & E-Mobility, at Climate Trends

Published on August 12, 2021

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