FIGHTING global warming is not just providing a path to net-zero carbon emissions for all countries. It is also about how to meet the energy needs of the people while doing so. If fossil fuels are to be given up as they need to be, countries in Africa and a significant part of Asia, including India, need an alternate path for providing electricity to its people. What is the course open to the poor countries if they do not use the fossil fuel route that the rich countries have used? And how much will such a route cost, and who will pay the bill? This discussion was completely absent from the COP26 agenda as the financing of a low carbon emission path was delinked from cutting down carbon emissions and is now scheduled for next year.
Some numbers here are important. The European Union plus UK (EU+) produce more than twice the carbon emissions than the entire continent of Africa, with less than half of its population. With less than a quarter of India’s population, the US emits significantly more carbon emissions than India.
A simple argument regarding replacing fossil fuels with renewables without bothering about funding, is the cost of electricity from renewables. If the cost of electricity using renewables is lower than that from fossil fuels, it should be possible to phase out fossil fuels completely with renewables, and we do not need to bother about funding. Or so the argument goes.
While the cost per unit of electricity with renewables is today lower than with fossil fuels, we need to build three or four times the capacity from renewables to supply the same amount of energy that we would get from fossil fuel plants. That means we will have to invest four times the capital in renewables to generate the same amount of electricity. We need much more capital even if the cost of electricity is the same as from fossil fuels, as we do not have to pay for the “fuel”: nature provides that free.
If we are a rich country, that may not be a problem. But for a poor country trying to build its basic infrastructure of electricity, roads, railways, other public infrastructure, including schools, universities and health, it is not easy without financial support from the rich countries. This is why the rich countries asking the poor countries to give net-zero pledge without committing any money is completely hypocritical. Tomorrow, they can, and most probably will, turn around and say that you made the commitment, now borrow from us at high rates of interest and make good on your promises. Or face sanctions. In other words, a new form of green imperialism.
The second problem with renewables as the main source of electricity is that there are significant additional costs that the grid will have to undertake in terms of short-term or long-term storage of electricity. This is to balance the short term or the seasonal fluctuations that may arise. For example, this year, Germany saw a significant stilling of winds in summer, leading to a sharp fall in wind generation. In their case, they balanced it with an increase of electricity from coal-fired plants, with their greenhouse gas emissions going up significantly. In a scenario that such plants do not exist, what will countries do?
While daily fluctuations can be met with large, grid sized batteries, this is not feasible for seasonal variations. They will have to either use pumped storage schemes with hydroelectric power or store hydrogen in large quantities for use in fuel cells. A pumped storage hydroelectric scheme means pumping water up to a reservoir when there is a surplus of power on the grid and using it to produce electricity when there is a shortfall. Storing hydrogen in quantities large enough to meet seasonal grid requirements is still another idea whose technical and economic feasibility needs to be explored before it becomes a real choice.
The point here is shifting to a grid entirely based on renewable energy is still technologically some distance away. And we may need to use concentrated sources of energy – fossil or nuclear – to meet the requirement of daily or seasonal fluctuations. This means developing new technologies.
In fossil fuels, it means using carbon capture, that is, not letting carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere pumping it into underground reservoirs. All such carbon capture projects in rich countries were given up in the belief that renewables will solve the problem of carbon emissions. It is now clear that renewables as the only source of energy in a grid are not enough, and we may need to look for other solutions as well, including carbon capture.
In the short-term, nuclear power does not appear to be a solution. This means gas, oil, and coal are the only short-term solutions before us. And here, the duplicity of the rich countries becomes clear. Europe and the US have enough gas resources. India and China do not; they instead have coal resources. Instead of arguing how much should each country emit greenhouse gases, they decided to focus on what fuel needs to be phased out. Yes, coal emits twice the amount of carbon dioxide compared to fuel gas for producing the same amount of energy. But if you produce twice the amount of energy from fuel gas as from coal, you will still produce the same amount of carbon emission. If the US or the EU+ (EU plus UK) is producing more carbon emissions than India or Africa, why ask phasing out only coal, while no such targets are taken by the US or EU+ for phasing out their carbon emissions using gas?
This is where the energy justice issue becomes important. The US per capita energy use is nine times that of India, the UK’s six times. If we consider countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Uganda or the Central African Republic, their energy consumption is even lower, i.e., US consumes 90 times, UK 60 times more than these countries! Why should we then talk of only which fuels need to be phased out and not how much emissions that countries need to cut and cut immediately?
I am not raising here the issue of an equitable share of the carbon space, and if a country has used more than its fair share, on how it should compensate the poorer countries. I am simply pointing out that by talking about net-zero and phasing out of certain fuels, the rich countries are continuing on their path of excess carbon emissions while changing the goalposts continuously for others.
The last word on hypocrisy is Norway’s. ]At a time that Norway is expanding its own oil and gas production, along with seven other Nordic and Baltic countries, Norway has been lobbying with the World Bank to stop all financing of natural gas projects in Africa and elsewhere (Foreign Policy: Rich Countries’ Climate Policies Are Colonialism in Green, Vijay Ramchandran, November 3, 2021).
While Norway may have been the most blatant, 20 countries combined with Norway to move similar resolutions in COP26. For them, climate change negotiations is how to keep their dominant energy positions while denying not only climate reparations but even finances for the poorest of countries that are trying to provide their people with subsistence energy.
It is clear that we have no future if we do not stop the continued emission of greenhouse gases. But if we do not also find a path for the poorer countries to meet their minimum level of energy needs, we will also see the collapse of huge swathes of these countries. Do we think we can live with countries in sub-Saharan Africa living on 1/90th the energy consumption of the US without the consequences for all of us? And Modi and his followers may believe that we are on the way to becoming a developed country, even a superpower. The fact is, in energy terms, we are, in fact, closer to Africa than we are to China or the club of the rich: the US, EU and the UK.