Inconvenient truth of climate change

The question no longer is if climate change is real. The question is: What can we do as temperatures increase and weather changes to bring devastation in different parts of the world? This is where our conversation is struggling to keep pace with the scale of the energy transition that is required. But there is some good news in terms of where the possible ans­wers will lie. This is what we should discuss. But in these ways forward, we must understand why trans­i­tions will be even more contested and even more diff­icult if we don’t recognise the need for climate justice.

So, what is the good news? At first, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) Global Energy — the CO2 Status report for 2018 makes for depressing reading. It finds global energy consumption is up — twice the average rate of growth since 2010. This is because of robust economic growth in the world and weird weather, ironically because of climate change. As a result, energy-related CO2 emissions are up, with the power sector accounting for two-thirds of emission growth. Oil demand increased by 1.3 per cent in 2018 and so did the demand for coal — but it is slower and much more sluggish than in the period before. But still coal is king; coal-based power plants, when added, end up being the single-largest contributor to growth in emission in 2018. The IEA estimates CO2 emitted from coal combustion was responsible for over 0.3°C of the 1°C increase in temperature over pre-industrial levels.

But there are some new trends which, if the world can accelerate, may help to turn around the energy trajectory that jeopardises our future. First, coal is being switched big time with natural gas for generating power — roughly 24 per cent of growth in natural gas use in the world was because it was substituted for coal in power plants. This happened mostly in the US and in China, where its domestic policy to clean air pollution (called the Blue Skies initiative) pushed for coal use to be curtailed in industrial boilers and power plants. Without this shift, CO2 emissions would have been 15 per cent higher, estimates the IEA. We need to note, however, that gas does have higher methane emissions — methane is also a potent greenhouse gas — and this is not accounted for by the IEA in this CO2 balance sheet.

Secondly, renewable energy — everything from solar, wind, hydel and bioenergy — is now part of the big-power balance sheet of the world. Renewable-based electricity generation increased by 7 per cent — this, as the IEA puts in perspective, is Brazil’s energy electricity demand and one point higher than the annual growth rate since 2010. China accounted for 40 per cent of the increase in renewables; Europe some 25 per cent and, interestingly, the US and India were matched at 13 per cent increase in renewable energy growth. Renewable energy accounted for a quarter of the global power output in 2018, second after coal. In Germany and also in the UK, renewable energy provided over 35 per cent of electricity.

All in all, without the switch to gas, increased use of nuclear and renewables, CO2 emissions would have been 50 per cent higher for the same economic growth the world saw in 2018. This is not small. This is not to be scoffed at. 

But this is not enough. The problem is the unequal nature of wealth in the world and the fact that this energy transition has to be made even as significant parts of the world need more energy — to light up homes, cook food and motorise, and run industries. This is the challenge and this is where we fall short. 

The US, for instance, desperately needs to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions — its contribution to the stock of gases in the atmosphere is massive (almost a quarter). It has to reduce. But in 2018, its CO2 emissions increased by 3.7 per cent. This, even when it substituted coal for gas and brought down its emission intensity. In other words, it has increased its emissions to such an extent that it has negated any gains it could have made because of this shift. This is also when methane is not being added to its balance sheet. This is not good. Not good at all. 

Similarly, the use of oil — primarily used for road transportation — increased higher in the US, even compared to China and India. This, when ownership and use of personal vehicles is already gargantuan and gross in the country. 

So, how will the world contract its emission? How will it still provide the right to development of the poor and the now emerging countries? Will it and can it? This is what needs to be discussed. This is the inconvenient truth of climate change action.

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The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environmentsunita@cseindia.org. Twitter: @sunitanar


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