The UN climate proposal that needs to be spurned by India – Editorial Analysis

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A climate proposal that needs to be spurned by India

The United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres  has proffered a climate control advice which, if accepted, will decimate the industrial infrastructure of the country and result in painful stagnation.

Mr. Gueterres has asked India to cut its carbon emission by a whopping 45% by 2030. To achieve this unrealistic target, India will have to double down on its effort to move away from thermal power and adopt renewable sources to meet its energy needs. The scorching pace of such an enforced switch to clean energy will break the back of many industries wreaking havoc on the economy already crippled by the pandemic.

The Secretary General is understandably in a hurry. While delivering the Darbari  Seth Memorial lecture on August 28 at The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), he asked India to stop making fresh investments in thermal power after 2020. Since his appeal was made broadly to all G20 nations, observers are likely to miss the sinister nature of this advice, especially because he had primarily India in mind while making the appeal from Indian soil.

The international community has long realized that it’s both futile and immoral to put the climate control burden equally on the developed and developing nations without any differentiation. The two groups of countries  vastly differ in their economic status, per capita carbon emission, and technological progress. With this divergence in mind, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted way back in 1992. The 19997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Pais Agreement owe their birth to the UNFCCC.  

The guiding principle of this agreement was to give enough leeway to the developing nations to exploit their coal resources till such time they are technologically and economically strong enough to abandon or sufficiently curtail coal burning for meeting their energy needs. The Secretary General’s approach to conveniently sidestep the provisions of the UNFCCC is, therefore, imprudent and deeply flawed.

The UN Secretary General’s speech delivered in TERI where Indi’s Minister of External Affairs was present can’t be treated lightly. The Secretaty General must have weighed his words before speaking.  

To drive home his point further, Mr. Gueteress reiterated exactly the same demand of 45% reduction in carbon emission by 2030 in a press conference later on September 9 at UN headquarters while releasing a report of the World Meteorological Organization. This time, he cited China and India together as his target nations.

It’s well known that on per capita basis, India is among the least polluting nations among G20 countries. This apart, when and how India’s economy would emerge from the Covi-19’s crippling blow is unclear. The Secretary General should have borne this in mind while imploring India to stick to his 45%-2030 deadline. All analysts concede that India is doing all it can to curb its coal dependence through quick switch to renewable sources. Asking it to do more is an unrealistic demand.

Limiting warming to no more than two degrees Celsius has become the de facto target, and also the permissible upper limit for formulating global climate policy. As it is clear to one and all, there are serious doubts about whether policymakers and governments can adopt action plans to keep temperature rise below this two-degree upper limit, and what happens if they can’t.

It is heartening to note that India is among the very few countries who are well on track to meet this two-degree limit. Also, with regard to meeting the Paris Agreement commitments, India’s emerges with flying colors.

Despite the rapid economic progress in the last few decades, Indians consume, in an average, just 0.5 tons of coal annually. Contrast this with the global average consumption of 1.3 tons per capita per annum. When compared with the high coal consumption figures of the western industrialized nations and China, India’s figures looks abysmally low.  

A fact that is really important for climate watchers is the way earth’s temperature increase is linked to the cumulative emissions of all the countries.  In this regard, India with its population of 1.3 billion contributed to just 4% of the global emission in the year 2017. In comparison, the European Union with a population of just 448 million contributed 20% of the total global emission.     

The UNFCCC has estimated that in roughly three decades, between 1990 and 2017, the developed nations (excluding Russia and east Europe) have managed to bring down their annual emissions by a paltry 1.3%. Given the possibility of error in computing such massive data, this figure could well be zero. No doubt, many industrialized nations in the North have progressively moved away from coal for their energy needs, but they have switched to oil and gas. Like coal, these are also fossil fuels, though less somewhat polluting. So, the claim of the industrial North that they have accomplished a lot in curbing carbon emission is not very convincing.

The way the industrialized nations in the North are producing energy, it’s almost certain that the globe is inexorably moving towards an alarming three-degree increase, not two degrees considered as the acceptable upper limit. Such a dubious record of galloping energy consumption has not deterred these countries from envisioning a ‘carbon neutral’ earth by 2050.  They know it’s a wishful thinking, but  the rich industrialized countries have not stopped sermonizing to the rest of the world. Quite unabashedly, they are grandstanding on climate issues knowing well that their own records have been very discouraging.

No doubt, there are many climate activists in the rich nations who sincerely want urgent action to arrest earth’s temperature increase. They want their own governments to act faster and in a more comprehensive manner to curb their own emissions and set an example to the world. Sadly, their politicians and government leaders are hesitant to accelerate the pace of switch to renewable energy, because they feel such accelerated measures could be disruptive to their economies. Rebuffed by their own indifferent governments, these activists, who are no doubt well-intentioned, turn to the developing countries to aggressively cut down their emissions. In other words, the developing nations are to curtail their emissions far too drastically, si that the gap left by the industrialized world is compensated. Nothing can be more unjust than such a suggestion.

Ignoring the way the industrialized countries burned coal in the last century to achieve economic progress, the climate activists of the rich nations portray coal as the modern-day villain, and the destroyer of the earth’s future. Such loathing of coal smacks of expediency and chicanery. The logic forwarded to make developing nations abjure coal is that switching to renewable energy could bring multiple socio-economic benefits such as mitigating inequality, and staving off a cataclysmic climate emergency. The point cleverly hidden in this advice is that it is the collective responsibility of the entire world community, and not of the developing countries alone.

Regrettably, the UN Secretary General has chosen not to confront the industrialized world with his strident call to limit carbon emission through policy changes. With regard to the United States in particular, the Secretary General has been very circumspect. Obviously, he does not want to rub President Trump, a known climate-skeptic, in the wrong side.

India’s record of weaning itself away from coal has been creditable. At present, India is decommissioning thermal power capacity at the rate of two GW a year. At this rate, by 2030, India will have just 184 GW of thermal power generation in its kitty of total power capacity.

Going by past record, Indians will be consuming 1550 to 1660 units of electric power per head per year by 2030. This means, to meet the power demand of its citizens, India has to create renewable power capacity of 650 GW to 750 GW by then. Due to constraints on capital and finance, India can’t make a large-scale switch to oil or gas as substitute for coal to generate power. Solar power and some wind power capacity could cater to India’s domestic consumers, and the service sector. The all-important manufacturing sector will solely need the dependable and stable thermal power for its needs. So, expecting India to stop investment in coal from next year and thus curtail its thermal power capacity will spell doom and disaster for the economy.

It has to be borne in mind that solar and wind power generation sector is still plagued by a plethora of technological problems. Efficiency of solar cells, connectivity to grids, and storage of power are still formidable challenges for the renewable energy sector.

The concessions given to the industrialized countries in the Copenhagen Accord of December, 2009 took the pressure off the industrialized nations who are the worst polluters presently. With reduced urgency to invent new products and technologies, the  investment and research to enhance efficiency and cost-effectiveness of renewable energy slowed down considerably.  The decreasing number of new patents in this field in recent years clearly points to a slowing down of the thrust of research and innovation. China, however, continues to break new grounds in new technologies. India, on the other hand, has a very faint footprint in renewable research field.

Large scale switching to renewable sources in a short time frame entails other risks also. As matters stand, India will continue to import many critical components and technologies from abroad to bolster and maintain the renewable sources. Such excessive dependence could be risky as imports get disrupted due to conflicts, sanctions, and change in domestic policies of exporting companies. Compared to this option, a hybrid basket of thermal power and renewable power assures India of stability of generation, besides employment generation for many in mining, running of thermal plants etc.

In conclusion, it can be argued that heeding the UN Secretary General’s advice to cut carbon emission by 45% by 2030 will spell disaster to India’s industrial sector, besides stifling its ambition to quickly expand its industrial base in near future. Thus, the advice of Mr. Gueterress needs to be rebuffed forcefully.

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