While natural gas plants are running, they need to purchase fuel and the price of fossil fuels does not reflect the cost of climate change in terms of greenhouse gas emissions
People around the world are experiencing climate change and scientific evidence clearly indicates that the climate is changing and is likely to accelerate in the future. The effects of climate change such as heavier precipitation and longer dry spells are obvious; though advanced models are also inadequate in predicting regional impacts, which are important for the formulation of local adaptation programmes. Climate change will undoubtedly affect water, forests, and coastal areas along with the Himalayan ecosystem, which is most likely threatened by rising sea levels and migrations of species.
Greenhouse gas such as, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) are majorly responsible for climate change. Regardless of where these greenhouse gases are emitted, they contribute to global warming.
India is the world's third largest producer of renewable energy and the third largest consumer of electricity in the world and presently 85 million people in India use electricity. As the country advances along with its population, per capita consumption of electricity is likely to rise sharply.
Would it be possible to generate all the electricity we need without emitting additional greenhouse gases?
India emits 83 per cent of greenhouse gases, a number that is likely to increase given the country's energy needs for development. India's population growth will intensify the demand for food, necessitating more urea and irrigation, and using the Haber-Bosch process to produce urea will exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions. Through amplifying the greenhouse effect of the planet, we are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Therefore, it is necessary to switch to less CO2 intensive energy. Developed nations like the United States and Western Europe have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through appropriate measures and specific innovations because their research and development budgets are relatively large for this purpose. Obtaining carbon-free electricity will be a huge challenge for India because to achieve zero emissions, all of our electricity must come from non-emitting sources. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, and geothermal power can provide energy without causing global warming. India depends on 74 per cent of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
While natural gas plants are running, they need to purchase fuel and the price of fossil fuels does not reflect the cost of climate change in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Solar and wind energy are intermittent energy sources. The maximum conversion capacity of solar energy is only 33 per cent. They cannot generate electricity 24 hours a day, so their storage and generation cost should also be considered. Batteries used in off-grid solar systems can be charged during the day and used during the night. It is a reasonable solution for using solar power throughout the day, but it is also quite expensive due to the costs associated with the battery and its life, which will determine how much it adds to the electricity bill and the public exchequer. Installing enough solar panels might be an option, but their effectiveness depends on the time of year. Solar power generation is significantly less in winter than in summer. Solar power and wind energy generation is totally dependent on natural circumstances. Even in bright sunshine and strong winds, production will always be less than the installed capacity due to intermittent shutdowns caused by maintenance. To collect as much sunlight as possible, we need a large number of solar panels that take up a lot of space, and some roofs are not big enough to accommodate them, so space is also an issue. Location is also increasingly important in solar energy. Our installation needs to be increased many times compared to the current one.
Even though nuclear power could be a solution, but it is risky and capital intensive.
The main reason why zero-carbon electricity is so expensive is intermittency. Because of this, the state is aiming to generate more renewable electricity by combining solar and wind power with other options like gas-powered plants, which is a necessity for cities and towns. It can be argued that the grid — a single connected network — is the solution, but in practice, this is not feasible, at least in the near future.
To use renewable energy more efficiently and generate carbon-free energy, we must invest more in research and development. Furthermore, issues such as widespread poverty alleviation, education, health, clean drinking water, water for sanitation and job creation require more money to be diverted to address these issues, which in turn can adversely affect investment in research and development. Even if we take into account the government's efforts towards clean energy, new innovations will be required to remove its impediments. Diffusion of innovations requires R&D expertise and also a long period of persuasion, decision-making, and implementation that will take a considerable amount of time. Conservation, afforestation and sustainable forestry practices are also the most efficient and cost-effective ways to combat carbon emissions.
Trees can absorb four tons of CO2 over the course of 40 years. A forest is considered a carbon sink if it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. Photosynthesis absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. It is then deposited in forest biomass (such as trunks, branches, roots and leaves), in dead organic matter (litter), and in soil and microorganisms. This process of carbon absorption and deposition is known as carbon sequestration. It is estimated that in India, forest carbon sequestration was around +68 (MT C02 eq/yr) in 2005-2007 and about +203 (MT CO2 eq/yr) in 2008-2011, although no reliable data are available. Type of forest also determine the quantity of carbon it can sequester, such as a closed canopy forests produce less carbon sequestration, because they lack under story vegetation and grasslands. A typical forest would emit close to 22,000 pounds of oxygen but when forests are cut down, plants absorb less CO2 thus increasing the concentration of atmospheric CO2.
In all global climate negotiations, developed countries have put pressure on developing countries (such as India and China) to reduce deforestation, but forests are either fragmented or degraded due to various development activities such as infrastructure, construction, mining, and urbanization. Therefore, to combat carbon emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation, steps must be taken to sequester and store carbon. COVID-19 is the most recent illustration of our unbalanced relationship with nature and if the current trend of development, deforestation, and sources of greenhouse gas emissions is allowed to increase, there will be a terrible result in the near future. Hence, deforestation must be controlled in order to avoid the adversity that accompanies it.
(The writer is a former Indian Forest Service officer. The views expressed are personal.)